Monthly Archives: November 2016

Blitz & Review: Duke of Pleasure by Elizabeth Hoyt

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As has been noted many times on my blog, I am a big fan of author Elizabeth Hoyt and her long-running Maiden Lane series. Now on book #11, the series is still going strong with new twists and turns and wildly romantic encounters.

The heroine of Duke of Pleasure is Alf, a character readers have come to know within the series. She lives in St. Giles where she prowls the streets during the night as the infamous Ghost of St. Giles. During the day, she is street tough, Alf, known to one and all as a teen boy. Of course, both her identities are far from the truth. She is really a twenty-one year old young woman who lives her life as a male to stay alive and mete out justice. She has been tasked by Hugh, the Duke of Kyle, to find out information on the notorious Lords of Chaos, a group known throughout England as awful men who bring horror to women and children alike with their deviant behavior.

Hugh wants to bring this group down, bad, especially when he learns that they may be

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Maiden Lane #11

responsible for the death of his wife, the mother to his two young sons. He is sure Alf can get the job done but his perspective changes wildly when he discovers Alf is a young woman. A young woman he is madly attracted to. He needs to keep his feelings in check which is easier said than done.

 

As the attraction between Alf and Hugh grows, so does the danger. Elizabeth Hoyt skillfully ramps up the tension on all fronts. Though Hugh and Alf seem very different, they have a lot more in common than one may realize initially. Their backgrounds in particular bare some closeness to each other. They are also both scared by the emotions they raise in each other. Alf wants to be herself. She wants to find out who she is as a woman and Hugh gives her that opportunity but their relationship proves to be even more than a door opening. With each other, they are able to uncover their deepest secrets and expose their true selves to each other.

I liked seeing the many sides of Alf. It is remarked in the book that Alf is a skilled actress and that proves to be the case. She is able to adapt to pretty much any situation thrown at her and uses her keen intelligence, her wits, and her talent with the swords to help her out when need be. As for Hugh, not only is he adjusting to life back in England after being away on the Continent for three years, but he is falling in love and trying to prove to his young sons that he is there for them, permanently. It is a challenge to say the least.

Their romance may be slightly unbelievable to some readers, but I really embraced how these two outsiders came together and made a family together. How they found happiness in each other by supporting their differences. Though Hugh worries about Alf many times in the book, I never felt like he was trying to hold her back (too much anyway). He admires her for the person she is. That is not always easy to find.

My one caveat to this book is that I really think it’s important to read some of the first books in the series first. Alf’s character grows and changes throughout the previous ten stories and it will serve readers well to know how she matured and changed. Fortunately, Forever Romance wants to help you do just this and they are doing something AMAZING.

************SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT*****************

WICKED INTENTIONS is now FREE for a limited time!

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The ebook edition of WICKED INTENTIONS, the first book in Elizabeth Hoyt’s bestselling Maiden Lane series will be FREE from November 28 through December 12!  This is a great opportunity to introduce friends to the series! On December 13 the price returns to $5.99.

Buy the Book!
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DUKE OF PLEASURE by Elizabeth Hoyt (November 29, 2016; Grand Central Publishing Mass Market; The Maiden Lane Series #11)

IN THE ARMS OF DANGER
Bold. Brave. Brutally handsome. Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle, is the king’s secret
weapon. Sent to defeat the notorious Lords of Chaos, he is ambushed in a London alley-and rescued by an unlikely ally: a masked stranger with the unmistakable curves of a woman.

IN THE HEAT OF DESIRE
Cocky. Clever. Courageously independent. Alf has survived on the perilous streets of St. Giles by disguising her sex. By day she is a boy, dealing in information and secrets. By night she’s the notorious Ghost of St. Giles, a masked vigilante. But as she saves Hugh from assassins, she finds herself succumbing to temptation . . .

ONE KISS WILL CHANGE THEIR LIVES FOREVER
When Hugh hires Alf to investigate the Lords of Chaos, her worlds collide. Once Hugh realizes that the boy and the Ghost are the same, will Alf find the courage to become the woman she needs to be-before the Lords of Chaos destroy them both?

Buy the Book!
Amazon: http://amzn.to/2cDuypj
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HoytElizabeth (1)

Elizabeth Hoyt is the New York Times bestselling author of over seventeen lush historical
romances including the Maiden Lane series. Publishers Weekly has called her writing “mesmerizing.” She also pens deliciously fun contemporary romances under the name Julia Harper. Elizabeth lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with three untrained dogs, a garden in constant need of weeding, and the long-suffering Mr. Hoyt.

Social Media Links:
www.ElizabethHoyt.com
www.twitter.com/elizabethhoyt
www.facebook.com/ElizabethHoytBooks
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ARC provided by publisher for review.

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McNaught E-Mondays: Once and Always

Once and Always
9781501145520
$7.99

cover-onceandalwaysVictoria Seaton, a blithe and fiercely independent orphan, leaves her home in America to travel across the vast Atlantic to claim her long-lost inheritance: a labyrinthine English estate named Wakefield. There she encounters her distant cousin, the notorious, proud, and mysterious Lord Jason Fielding. Drawn to his magnetic charisma, Victoria can’t help but suspect that like her, he harbors a dark and painful past. Neither Victoria or Jason are able to resist one another’s charm but, in a moment of blinding anguish, Victoria discovers the shocking truth that lays at the heart of their love—a love she had dreamed would triumph.

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Chapters 2-3

VICTORIA, ARE YOU ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN your mother never mentioned either the Duke of Atherton or the Duchess of Claremont to you?”

Victoria tore her thoughts from aching memories of her parents’ funeral and looked at the elderly, white-haired physician seated across from her at the kitchen table. As her father’s oldest friend, Dr. Morrison had taken on the responsibility of seeing the girls settled, as well as of trying to care for Dr. Seaton’s patients until the new physician arrived. “All Dorothy or I ever knew was that Mama was estranged from her family in England. She never spoke of them.”

Is it possible your father had relatives in Ireland?”

Papa grew up in an orphans’ home there. He had no relatives.” She stood up restlessly. “May I fix you some coffee, Dr. Morrison?”

Stop fussing over me and go sit outside in the sunshine with Dorothy,” Dr. Morrison chided gently. “You’re pale as a ghost.”

Is there anything you need, before I go?” Victoria persisted.

I need to be a few years younger,” he replied with a grim smile as he sharpened a quill. “I’m too old to carry the burden of your father’s patients. I belong back in Philadelphia with a hot brick beneath my feet and a good book on my lap. How I’m to carry on here for four more months until the new physician arrives, I can’t imagine.”

I’m sorry,” Victoria said sincerely. “I know it’s been terrible for you.”

It’s been a great deal worse for you and Dorothy,” the kindly old doctor said. “Now, run along outside and get some of this fine winter sunshine. It’s rare to see a day this warm in January. While you sit in the sun, I’ll write these letters to your relatives.”

A week had passed since Dr. Morrison had come to visit the Seatons, only to be summoned to the scene of the accident where the carriage bearing Patrick Seaton and his wife had plunged down a riverbank, overturning. Patrick Seaton had been killed instantly. Katherine had regained consciousness only long enough to try to answer Dr. Morrison’s desperate inquiry about her relatives in England. In a feeble whisper, she had said, “. . . Grandmother . . . Duchess of Claremont.”

And then, just before she died, she had whispered another name—Charles. Frantically Dr. Morrison had begged her for his complete name, and Katherine’s dazed eyes had opened briefly. “Fielding,” she had breathed. “. . . Duke . . . of . . . Atherton.”

Is he a relative?” he demanded urgently.

After a long pause, she’d nodded feebly. “Cousin—”

To Dr. Morrison now fell the difficult task of locating and contacting these heretofore unknown relatives to inquire whether either of them would be willing to offer Victoria and Dorothy a home—a task that was made even more difficult because, as far as Dr. Morrison could ascertain, neither the Duke of Atherton nor the Duchess of Claremont had any idea the girls existed.

With a determined look upon his brow, Dr. Morrison dipped the quill in the inkwell, wrote the date at the top of the first letter, and hesitated, his brow furrowed in thought. “How does one properly address a duchess?” he asked the empty room. After considerable contemplation, he arrived at a decision and began writing.

Dear Madam Duchess,

It is my unpleasant task to advise you of the tragic death of your granddaughter, Katherine Seaton, and to further advise you that Mrs. Seaton’s two daughters, Victoria and Dorothy, are now temporarily in my care. However, I am an old man, and a bachelor besides. Therefore, Madam Duchess, I cannot properly continue to care for two orphaned young ladies.

Before she died, Mrs. Seaton mentioned only two names—yours and that of Charles Fielding. I am, therefore, writing to you and to Sir Fielding in the hope that one or both of you will welcome Mrs. Seaton’s daughters into your home. I must tell you that the girls have nowhere else to go. They are sadly short of funds and in dire need of a suitable home.

Dr. Morrison leaned back in his chair and scrutinized the letter while a frown of concern slowly formed on his forehead. If the duchess was unaware of the girls’ existence, he could already foresee the old lady’s possible unwillingness to house them without first knowing something about them. Trying to think how best to describe them, he turned his head and gazed out the window at the girls.

Dorothy was seated upon the swing, her slim shoulders drooping with despair. Victoria was determinedly applying herself to her sketching in an effort to hold her grief at bay.

Dr. Morrison decided to describe Dorothy first, for she was the easiest.

Dorothy is a pretty girl, with light yellow hair and blue eyes. She is sweet-dispositioned, well-mannered, and charming. At seventeen, she is nearly of an age to marry, but has shown no particular inclination to settle her affections on any one young gentleman in the district. . . .

Dr. Morrison paused and thoughtfully stroked his chin. In truth, many young gentlemen in the district were utterly smitten with Dorothy. And who could blame them? She was pretty and gay and sweet. She was angelic, Dr. Morrison decided, pleased that he had hit upon exactly the right word to describe her.

But when he turned his attention to Victoria, his bushy white brows drew together in bafflement, for although Victoria was his personal favorite, she was far harder to describe. Her hair was not golden like Dorothy’s, nor was it truly red; rather, it was a vivid combination of both. Dorothy was a pretty thing, a charming, demure young lady who turned all the local boys’ heads. She was perfect material for a wife: sweet, gentle, soft-spoken, and biddable. In short, she was the sort of female who would never contradict or disobey her husband.

Victoria, on the other hand, had spent a great deal of time with her father and, at eighteen, she possessed a lively wit, an active mind, and a startling tendency to think for herself.

Dorothy would think as her husband told her to think and do what he told her to do, but Victoria would think for herself and very likely do as she thought best.

Dorothy was angelic, Dr. Morrison decided, but Victoria was . . . not.

Squinting through his spectacles at Victoria, who was resolutely sketching yet another picture of the vine-covered garden wall, he stared at her patrician profile, trying to think of the words to describe her. Brave, he decided, knowing she was sketching because she was trying to stay busy rather than dwell on her grief. And compassionate, he thought, recalling her efforts to console and cheer her father’s sick patients.

Dr. Morrison shook his head in frustration. As an old man, he enjoyed her intelligence and her sense of humor; he admired her courage, spirit, and compassion. But if he emphasized those qualities to her English relatives, they would surely envision her as an independent, bookish, unmarriageable female whom they would have on their hands forever. There was still the possibility that when Andrew Bainbridge returned from Europe in several months, he would formally request Victoria’s hand, but Dr. Morrison wasn’t certain. Victoria’s father and Andrew’s mother had agreed that, before the young couple became betrothed, their feelings for one another should be tested during this six-month period while Andrew took an abbreviated version of the Grand Tour.

Victoria’s affection for Andrew had remained strong and constant, Dr. Morrison knew, but Andrew’s feelings for her were apparently wavering. According to what Mrs. Bainbridge had confided to Dr. Morrison yesterday, Andrew seemed to be developing a strong attraction to his second cousin, whose family he was currently visiting in Switzerland.

Dr. Morrison sighed unhappily as he continued to gaze at the two girls, who were dressed in plain black gowns, one with shining golden hair, the other’s gleaming pale copper. Despite the somberness of their attire, they made a very fetching picture, he thought fondly. A picture! Seized by inspiration, Dr. Morrison decided to solve the whole problem of describing the girls to their English relatives by simply enclosing a miniature of them in each letter.

That decision made, he finished his first letter by asking the duchess to confer with the Duke of Atherton, who was receiving an identical letter, and to advise what they wished him to do in the matter of the girls’ care. Dr. Morrison wrote the same letter to the Duke of Atherton; then he composed a short note to his solicitor in New York, instructing that worthy gentleman to have a reliable person in London locate the duke and the duchess and deliver the letters to them. With a brief prayer that either the duke or the duchess would reimburse him for his expenditures, Dr. Morrison stood up and stretched.

Outside in the garden, Dorothy nudged the ground with the toe of her slipper, sending the swing twisting listlessly from side to side. “I still cannot quite believe it,” she said, her soft voice filled with a mixture of despair and excitement. “Mama was the granddaughter of a duchess! What does that make us, Tory? Do we have titles?”

Victoria sent her a wry glance. “Yes,” she said. “We are ‘Poor Relations.’ ”

It was the truth, for although Patrick Seaton had been loved and valued by the grateful country folk whose ills he had treated for many years, his patients had rarely been able to pay him with coin, and he had never pressed them to do so. They repaid him instead with whatever goods and services they were able to provide—with livestock, fish, and fowl for his table, with repairs to his carriage and to his home, with freshly baked loaves of bread and baskets of juicy, handpicked berries. As a result, the Seaton family had never wanted for food, but money was ever in short supply, as evidenced by the oft-mended, hand-dyed gowns Dorothy and Victoria were both wearing. Even the house they lived in had been provided by the villagers, just as they provided one for Reverend Milby, the minister. The houses were loaned to the occupants in return for their medical and pastoral services.

Dorothy ignored Victoria’s sensible summation of their status and continued dreamily, “Our cousin is a duke, and our great-grandmother is a duchess! I still cannot quite believe it, can you?”

I always thought Mama was something of a mystery,” Victoria replied, blinking back the tears of loneliness and despair that misted her blue eyes. “Now the mystery is solved.”

What mystery?”

Victoria hesitated, her sketching pencil hovering above her tablet. “I only meant that Mama was different from every other female I have ever known.”

I suppose she was,” Dorothy agreed, and lapsed into silence.

Victoria stared at the sketch that lay in her lap while the delicate lines and curves of the meandering roses she’d been drawing from her memory of last summer blurred before her moist eyes. The mystery was solved. Now she understood a great many things that had puzzled and troubled her. Now she understood why her mother had never mingled comfortably with the other women of the village, why she had always spoken in the cultured tones of an English gentlewoman and stubbornly insisted that, at least in her presence, Victoria and Dorothy do the same. Her heritage explained her mother’s insistence that they learn to read and speak French in addition to English. It explained her fastidiousness. It partially explained the strange, haunted expression that crossed her features on those rare occasions when she mentioned England.

Perhaps it even explained her strange reserve with her own husband, whom she treated with gentle courtesy, but nothing more. Yet she had, on the surface, been an exemplary wife. She had never scolded her husband, never complained about her shabby-genteel existence, and never quarreled with him. Victoria had long ago forgiven her mother for not loving her father. Now that she realized her mother must have been reared in incredible luxury, she was also inclined to admire her uncomplaining fortitude.

Dr. Morrison walked into the garden and beamed an encouraging smile at both girls. “I’ve finished my letters and I shall send them off tomorrow. With luck, we should have your relatives’ replies in three months’ time, perhaps less.” He smiled at both girls, pleased at the part he was trying to play in reuniting them with their noble English relatives.

What do you think they’ll do when they receive your letters, Dr. Morrison?” Dorothy asked.

Dr. Morrison patted her head and squinted into the sunshine, drawing upon his imagination. “They’ll be surprised, I suppose, but they won’t let it show—the English upper classes don’t like to display emotion, I’m told, and they’re sticklers for formality. Once they’ve read the letters, they’ll probably send polite notes to each other, and then one of them will call upon the other to discuss your futures. A butler will carry in tea—”

He smiled as he envisioned the delightful scenario in all its detail. In his mind he pictured two genteel English aristocrats—wealthy, kindly people—who would meet in an elegant drawing room to partake of tea from a silver tray before they discussed the future of their heretofore unknown—but cherished—young relatives. Since the Duke of Atherton and the Duchess of Claremont were distantly related through Katherine they would, of course, be friends, allies. . . .

HER GRACE, THE DOWAGER DUCHESS of Claremont,” the butler intoned majestically from the doorway of the drawing room where Charles Fielding, Duke of Atherton, was seated. The butler stepped aside and an imposing old woman marched in, trailed by her harassed-looking solicitor. Charles Fielding looked at her, his piercing hazel eyes alive with hatred.

Don’t bother to rise, Atherton,” the duchess snapped sarcastically, glaring at him when he remained deliberately and insolently seated.

Perfectly still, he continued to regard her in icy silence. In his mid fifties, Charles Fielding was still an attractive man, with thick, silver-streaked hair and hazel eyes, but illness had taken its toll on him. He was too thin for his tall frame and his face was deeply etched with lines of strain and fatigue.

Unable to provoke a response from him, the duchess rounded on the butler. “This room is too hot!” she snapped, rapping her jeweled-handled cane upon the floor. “Draw the draperies and let in some air.”

Leave them!” Charles barked, his voice seething with the loathing that the mere sight of her evoked in him.

The duchess turned a withering look in his direction. “I have not come here to suffocate,” she stated ominously.

Then get out.”

Her thin body stiffened into a rigid line of furious resentment. “I have not come here to suffocate,” she repeated through tightly clenched teeth. “I have come here to inform you of my decision regarding Katherine’s girls.”

Do it,” Charles snapped, “and then get out!”

Her eyes narrowed to furious slits and the air seemed to crackle with her hostility, but instead of leaving, she slowly lowered herself into a chair. Despite her advanced years, the duchess sat as regally erect as a queen, a purple turban perched upon her white head in place of a crown, a cane in her hand instead of a scepter.

Charles watched her with wary surprise, for he had been certain she’d insisted upon this meeting only so she could have the satisfaction of telling him to his face that the disposition of Katherine’s children was none of his business. He had not expected her to sit down as if she had something more to say.

You have seen the girls’ miniature,” she stated.

His gaze dropped to the miniature in his hand and his long fingers tightened convulsively, protectively around it. Naked pain darkened his eyes as he stared at Victoria. She was the image of her mother—the image of his beautiful, beloved Katherine.

Victoria is the image of her mother,” her grace snapped suddenly.

Charles lifted his gaze to hers and his face instantly hardened. “I am aware of that.”

Good. Then you will understand why I will not have that girl in my house. I’ll take the other one.” Standing up as if her business had been concluded, she glanced at her solicitor. “See that Dr. Morrison receives a bank draft to cover his expenses, and another draft to cover ship passage for the younger girl.”

Yes, your grace,” her solicitor said, bowing. “Will there be anything more?”

There will be a great deal more,” she snapped, her voice strained and tight. “I shall have to launch the girl into society, I shall have to provide a dowry for her. I shall have to find her a husband, I—”

What about Victoria?” Charles interrupted fiercely. “What do you plan to do about the older girl?”

The duchess glowered at him. “I’ve already told you—that one reminds me of her mother, and I won’t have her in my house. If you want her, you can take her. You wanted her mother rather badly, as I recall. And Katherine obviously wanted you—even when she was dying, she still spoke your name. You can shelter Katherine’s image instead. It will serve you right to have to look at the chit.”

Charles’s mind was still reeling with joyous disbelief when the old duchess added arrogantly, “Marry her off to anyone you please—anyone except that nephew of yours. Twenty-two years ago, I wouldn’t countenance an alliance between your family and mine, and I still forbid it. I—” As if something had just occurred to her, she broke off abruptly, her eyes beginning to gleam with malignant triumph. “I shall marry Dorothy to Winston’s son!” she announced gleefully. “I wanted Katherine to marry the father, and she refused because of you. I’ll marry Dorothy to the son—I’ll have that alliance with the Winstons after all!” A slow, spiteful smile spread across her wrinkled face, and she laughed at Charles’s pinched expression. “After all these years, I’m still going to pull off the most splendid match in a decade!” With that, she swept out of the room, followed by her solicitor.

Charles stared after her, his emotions veering between bitterness, hatred, and joy. That vicious old bitch had just inadvertently given him the one thing he wanted more than life itself—she had given him Victoria, Katherine’s child. Katherine’s image. A happiness that was almost past bearing surged through Charles, followed almost immediately by boiling wrath. That devious, heartless, conniving old woman was going to have an alliance with the Winstons—exactly as she had always wanted. She had been willing to sacrifice Katherine’s happiness to have that meaningless alliance, and now she was going to succeed.

The rage Charles felt because she, too, was gaining what she had always wanted nearly eclipsed his own joy at getting Victoria. And then suddenly a thought occurred to him. With narrowed eyes, he contemplated it, mulled it over, studied it. And slowly he began to smile. “Dobson,” he said eagerly to his butler. “Bring me quill and parchment. I want to write out a betrothal announcement. See that it is delivered to the Times at once.”

Yes, your grace.”

Charles looked up at the old servant, his eyes burning with feverish jubilation. “She was wrong, Dobson,” he announced. “That old bitch was wrong!”

Wrong, your grace?”

Yes, wrong! She’s not going to pull off the most splendid match in a decade. I am!”

*  *  *

It was a ritual. Each morning at approximately 9 o’clock, Northrup the butler opened the massive front door of the Marquess of Wakefield’s palatial country mansion and was handed a copy of the Times by a footman who had brought it from London.

After closing the door, Northrup crossed the marble foyer and handed the newspaper to another footman stationed at the bottom of the grand staircase. “His lordship’s copy of the Times,” he intoned.

This footman carried the paper down the hall and into the dining room where Jason Fielding, Marquess of Wakefield, was customarily finishing his morning meal and reading his mail. “Your copy of the Times, my lord,” the footman murmured diffidently as he placed it beside the marquess’s coffee cup and then removed his plate. Wordlessly, the marquess picked up the paper and opened it.

All of this was performed with the perfectly orchestrated and faultlessly executed precision of a minuet, for Lord Fielding was an exacting master who demanded that his estates and townhouses run as smoothly as well-oiled machines.

His servants were in awe of him, regarding him as a cold, frighteningly unapproachable deity whom they strove desperately to please.

The eager London beauties whom Jason took to balls, operas, plays—and bed—felt much the same way about him, for he treated most of them with little more genuine warmth than he did his servants. Nevertheless, the ladies eyed him with unveiled longing wherever he went, for despite his cynical attitude, there was an unmistakable aura of virility about Jason that made feminine hearts flutter.

His thick hair was coal black, his piercing eyes the green of India jade, his lips firm and sensually molded. Tough, rugged strength was carved into every feature of his sun-bronzed face, from his straight dark brows to the arrogant jut of his chin and jaw. Even his physical build was overpoweringly masculine, for he was six feet two inches tall, with wide shoulders, narrow hips, and firmly muscled legs and thighs. Whether he was riding a horse or dancing at a ball, Jason Fielding stood out among his fellow men like a magnificent jungle cat surrounded by harmless, domesticated kittens.

As Lady Wilson-Smyth once laughingly remarked, Jason Fielding was as dangerously attractive as sin—and undoubtedly just as wicked.

That opinion was shared by many, for anyone who looked into those cynical green eyes of his could tell there wasn’t an innocent or naive fiber left in his lithe, muscular body. Despite that—or more accurately, because of it—the ladies were drawn to him like pretty moths to a scorching flame, eager to experience the heat of his ardor or bask in the dazzling warmth of one of his rare, lazy smiles. Sophisticated, married flirts schemed to occupy his bed; younger ladies of marriageable age dreamed of being the one to thaw his icy heart and bring him to his knees.

Some of the more sensible members of the ton remarked that Lord Fielding had good reason to be cynical where women were concerned. Everyone knew that his wife’s behavior when she first came to London four years ago had been scandalous. From the moment she arrived in town, the beautiful Marchioness of Wakefield had indulged in one widely publicized love affair after another. She had repeatedly cuckolded her husband; everyone knew it—including Jason Fielding, who apparently didn’t care. . . .

The footman paused beside Lord Fielding’s chair, an ornate sterling coffeepot in his hand. “Would you care for more coffee, my lord?”

His lordship shook his head and turned to the next page of the Times. The footman bowed and retreated. He had not expected Lord Fielding to answer him aloud, for the master rarely deigned to speak to any of his servants. He did not know most of their names, or anything about them, nor did he care. But at least he was not given to ranting and raving, as many of the nobility were. When displeased, the Marquess merely turned the chilling blast of his green gaze on the offender and froze him. Never, not even under the most extreme provocation, did Lord Fielding raise his voice.

Which was why the amazed footman nearly dropped his silver coffeepot when Jason Fielding slammed his hand down on the table with a crash that made the dishes dance and thundered, “That son of a bitch!” Leaping to his feet, he stared at the open newspaper, his face a mask of fury and disbelief. “That conniving, scheming—He’s the only one who would dare!” With a murderous glance at the thunder-struck footman, he stalked out of the room, grabbed his cloak from his butler, stormed out of the house, and headed straight for the stables.

Northrup closed the front door behind him and rushed down the hall, his black coattails flapping. “What happened to his lordship?” he demanded, bursting into the dining room.

The footman was standing beside Lord Fielding’s recently vacated chair, staring raptly at the open newspaper, the forgotten coffeepot still suspended from one hand. “I think it was somethin ’ he read in the Times,” he breathed, pointing to the announcement of the engagement of Jason Fielding, Marquess of Wakefield, to Miss Victoria Seaton. “I didn’t know his lordship was plannin’ to wed,” the footman added.

One wonders if his lordship knew it either,” Northrup mused, gaping in astonishment at the newspaper. Suddenly realizing that he had so forgotten himself as to gossip with an underling, Northrup swept the paper from the table and closed it smartly. “Lord Fielding’s affairs are no concern of yours, O’Malley. Remember that if you wish to stay on here.”

Two hours later, Jason’s carriage came to a bone-jarring stop in front of the Duke of Atherton’s London residence. A groom ran forward and Jason tossed the reins to him, bounded out of the carriage, and strode purposefully up the front steps to the house.

Good day, my lord,” Dobson intoned as he opened the front door and stepped aside. “His grace is expecting you.”

I’ll bet he damned well is!” Jason bit out scathingly. “Where is he?”

In the drawing room, my lord.”

Jason stalked past him and down the hall, his long, quick strides eloquent of his turbulent wrath as he flung open the drawing room door and headed straight toward the dignified, gray-haired man seated before the fire. Without preamble, he snapped, “You, I presume, are responsible for that outrageous announcement in the Times?”

Charles boldly returned his stare. “I am.”

Then you will have to issue another one to rescind it.”

No,” Charles stated implacably. “The young woman is coming to England and you are going to marry her. Among other things, I want a grandson from you, and I want to hold him in my arms before I depart this world.”

If you want a grandson,” Jason snarled, “all you have to do is locate some of your other by-blows. I’m sure you’ll discover they’ve sired you dozens of grandsons by now.”

Charles flinched at that, but his voice merely lowered ominously. “I want a legitimate grandson to present to the world as my heir.”

A legitimate grandson,” Jason repeated with freezing sarcasm. “You want me, your illegitimate son, to sire you a legitimate grandson. Tell me something: with everyone else believing I’m your nephew, how do you intend to claim my son as your grandchild?”

I would claim him as my great-nephew, but I would know he’s my grandson, and that’s all that matters.” Undaunted by his son’s soaring fury, Charles finished implacably, “I want an heir from you, Jason.”

A pulse drummed in Jason’s temple as he fought to control his wrath. Bending low, he braced his hands on the arms of Charles’s chair, his face only inches away from the older man’s. Very slowly and very distinctly, he enunciated, “I have told you before, and I’m telling you for the last time, that I will never remarry. Do you understand me? / will never remarry!”

Why?” Charles snapped. “You aren’t entirely a woman-hater. It’s common knowledge that you’ve had mistresses and that you treat them well. In fact, they all seem to tumble into love with you. The ladies obviously like being in your bed, and you obviously like having them there—”

Shut up!” Jason exploded.

A spasm of pain contorted Charles’s face and he raised his hand to his chest, his long fingers clutching his shirt. Then he carefully returned his hand to his lap.

Jason’s eyes narrowed, but despite his suspicion that Charles was merely feigning the pain, he forced himself to remain silent as his father continued. “The young lady I’ve chosen to be your wife should arrive here in about three months. I will have a carriage waiting at the dock so that she may proceed directly to Wakefield Park. For the sake of propriety, I will join the two of you there and remain with you until the nuptials have been performed. I knew her mother long ago, and I’ve seen a likeness of Victoria—you won’t be disappointed.” He held out the miniature. “Come now, Jason,” he said, his voice turning soft, persuasive, “aren’t you the slightest bit curious about her?”

Charles’s attempt at cajolery hardened Jason’s features into a mask of granite. “You’re wasting your time. I won’t do it.”

You’ll do it,” Charles promised, resorting to threats in his desperation. “Because if you don’t, I’ll disinherit you. You’ve already spent half a million pounds of your money restoring my estates, estates that will never belong to you unless you marry Victoria Seaton.”

Jason reacted to the threat with withering contempt. “Your precious estates can burn to the ground for all I care. My son is dead—I no longer have any use for legacies.”

Charles saw the pain that flashed across Jason’s eyes at the mention of his little boy, and his tone softened with shared sorrow. “I’ll admit that I acted precipitously in announcing your betrothal, Jason, but I had my reasons. Perhaps I can’t force you to marry Victoria, but at least don’t set your mind against her. I promise you that you’ll find no fault with her. Here, I have a miniature of her and you can see for yourself how beautiful . . . Charles’s voice trailed off as Jason turned on his heel and stalked from the room, slamming the door behind him with a deafening crash.

Charles glowered at the closed door. “You’ll marry her, Jason,” he warned his absent son. “You’ll do it if I have to hold a gun to your head.”

He glanced up a few minutes later as Dobson came in carrying a silver tray laden with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. “I took the liberty of selecting something appropriate for the occasion,” the old servant confided happily, putting the tray on the table near Charles.

In that case you should have selected hemlock,” Charles said wryly. “Jason has already left.”

The butler’s face fell. “Already left? But I didn’t have an opportunity to felicitate his lordship on his forthcoming nuptials.”

Which is fortunate indeed,” Charles said with a grim chuckle. “I fear he’d have loosened your teeth.”

When the butler left, Charles picked up the bottle of champagne, opened it, and poured some into a glass. With a determined smile, he lifted his glass in a solitary toast: “To your forthcoming marriage, Jason.”

 

McNaught E-Mondays: Perfect

cover-perfect-1Perfect
9781439140710
$7.99


A rootless foster child, Julie Mathison has blossomed under the love showered upon her by her adoptive family. Now a lovely and vivacious young woman, she is a respected teacher in her small Texas town and is determined to give back all the kindness she has received, believing that nothing can ever shatter the perfect life she has fashioned.

Zachary Benedict is an actor whose Academy Award-winning career was shattered when he was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. After the tall, ruggedly handsome Zack escapes from a Texas prison, he abducts Julie and forces her to drive him to his Colorado mountain hideout. She’s outraged, cautious, and unable to ignore the instincts that whispers of his innocence. He’s cynical, wary, and increasingly attracted to her. Desire is about to capture them both in its fierce embrace but the journey to trust, true commitment, and proving Zack’s innocence is just beginning. “A mixture of virtue and passion that is almost—ahem—perfect” (Kirkus Reviews) this is a captivating tale that fans will adore.

S&S | Kindle | iBooks | Nook | Google Play

Chapter 16 – 20

Snow clung to Zack’s hair and swirled around his feet as he bent his head into the wind. Several trucks roared past him, the drivers ignoring his upraised thumb, and he fought down a panicky premonition of impending doom. Traffic was heavy on the highway, but everybody was evidently in a hurry to reach their destination before the storm struck, and they weren’t stopping for anything. Up ahead at the intersection was an old-fashioned gas station/cafe with two cars in the large parking lot—a blue Blazer and a brown station wagon. Carrying his duffel bags, he walked up the driveway and when he passed the cafe, he glanced carefully through the large front window at the occupants. There was a lone woman in one booth and a mother with two young children in the other. He swore under his breath because both cars belonged to women, and they weren’t likely to pick up hitchhikers. Without slowing his pace, Zack continued toward the end of the building, where their two cars were parked, wondering if the keys were in the ignitions. Even if they were, he knew it was insanity to steal one of those cars because he’d have to drive it right past the front window of the cafe in order to get out of the parking lot. If he did that, whoever owned the car would have the cops on the phone, describing him and his vehicle, before he got out of the damned parking lot. What’s more, from up here, they could see which way he went on the interstate. Maybe he could try to bribe one of the women in the cafe to give him a ride when she came out.

If money didn’t persuade her to agree, he had a gun that could convince her. Christ! There had to be a better way to get out of here than that.

In front of him and below, trucks roared down the interstate making mini blizzards with their wheels. He glanced at his watch. Nearly an hour had passed since Hadley had gone into his meeting. He didn’t dare try hitchhiking on that interstate any more. He’d be visible down there from the overpass for a mile. If Sandini had followed instructions, Hadley would be sounding an alert to the local cops in about five minutes. As if his thought had caused it to happen, a local sheriff’s car suddenly appeared on the overpass, slowed down, then turned into the cafe’s parking lot fifty yards away from Zack’s hiding spot, coming toward him.

Instinctively, Zack crouched down, pretending that he was inspecting the tire on the Blazer, and then inspiration struck—too late perhaps, but maybe not. Yanking the switchblade out of the duffel bag, he rammed it into the side of the Blazer’s tire, ducking to one side to avoid the explosion of air. From the corner of his eye, he watched the patrol car glide to a stop behind him. Instead of demanding to know what Zack was doing loitering around the cafe with duffel bags, the local sheriff rolled down his car window and drew the obvious conclusion. “Looks like you got a flat there—”

Sure as hell,” Zack agreed, slapping the side of the tire, careful not to look over his shoulder. “My wife tried to warn me this tire had a leak—” The rest of his words were drowned out by the sudden frantic squawking of the police radio, and without another word, the cop wheeled the patrol car into a screeching turn, accelerated sharply, and roared out of the parking lot with its siren wailing. A moment later, Zack heard more sirens coming from every direction, and then he saw the patrol cars racing across the overpass, their warning lights revolving.

The authorities, Zack knew, were now aware that an escaped convict was on the loose. The hunt had begun.

Inside the cafe, Julie finished her coffee and groped in her purse for money to pay the check. Her visit with Mr. Vernon had gotten her more than she’d expected, including an invitation to spend more time with his wife and him that she hadn’t been able to refuse. She had a five-hour drive in front of her, longer with all this snow, but she had a fat check in her purse and enough excitement about that to make the miles fly past. She glanced at her watch, picked up the thermos she’d brought in from the car to be filled with coffee, smiled at the children eating with their mother in the adjoining booth, and walked up to the cash register to pay her bill.

As she emerged from the building, she stopped in surprise as a squad car suddenly made a frantic U-turn in front of her, turned on its siren, then shot out of the parking lot onto the highway, its rear end fishtailing in the thin blanket of snow. Distracted by that, she didn’t notice the dark-haired man squatting beside the rear wheel of her car on the driver’s side until she almost stumbled over him. He stood up abruptly, towering over her from a height of about 6’2”, and she took a startled, cautious step backward, her voice shaky with alarm and suspicion. “What are you doing there?” she demanded, frowning at her own image as it was reflected back at her from the silvery lenses of his aviator sunglasses.

Zack actually managed a semblance of a smile because his mind had finally started working, and he now knew exactly how he was going to get her to offer him a ride. Imagination and the ability to improvise had been two of his biggest assets as a director. Nodding toward her rear tire, which was very obviously flat, he said, “I’m planning to change your tire for you if you have a jack.”

Julie’s breath came out in a rush of chagrin. “I’m sorry for being so rude, but you startled me. I was watching that squad car tearing out of here.”

That was Joe Loomis, a local constable,” Zack improvised smoothly, deliberately making it sound as if the cop was a friend of his. “Joe got another call and had to leave, or he’d have given me a hand with your tire.”

Julie’s fears were completely allayed, and she smiled at him. “This is very kind of you,” she said, opening the tailgate of the Blazer and looking for a jack. “This is my brother’s car. The jack is somewhere in here, but I’m not sure where.”

There,” Zack said, quickly locating the jack and taking it out. “This will only take a few minutes,” he added. He was in a hurry, but no longer fighting down panic. The woman already thought he was friendly with the local sheriff, so she’d naturally think he was trustworthy, and after he changed her tire, she’d owe him a ride. Once they were on the road, the police wouldn’t give them a second glance because they’d be looking for a man who was traveling alone. For now, if anyone noticed him, he would appear to be an ordinary husband changing a tire while his wife looked on. “Where are you headed?” he asked her, using the jack.

East toward Dallas for a long way and then south,” Julie said, admiring his easy skill with the heavy vehicle. He had an unusually nice voice, uncommonly deep and smooth, and a strong, square jawline. His hair was dark brown and very thick, but poorly cut, and she wondered idly what he looked like without the concealing barrier of those reflective sunglasses. Very handsome, she decided, but it wasn’t his good looks that kept drawing her eyes back to his profile, it was something else, something illusive that she couldn’t pinpoint. Julie shrugged the feeling off, and cradling the thermos in her arm, she embarked on polite conversation. “Do you work around here?”

Not any more. I was supposed to start a new job tomorrow, but I have to be there by seven in the morning or they’ll give it to someone else.” He finished jacking the car up and began loosening the lug bolts on the tire, then he nodded toward the nylon duffel bags that Julie hadn’t seen before because they had somehow gotten shoved under her car. “A friend of mine was supposed to pick me up here two hours ago and give me a ride part of the way,” he added, “but I guess something happened and he isn’t going to make it.”

You’ve been waiting out here for two hours?” Julie exclaimed. “You must be frozen.”

He kept his face averted, apparently concentrating on his task, and Julie restrained the peculiar urge to try to bend down and get a longer, closer look at him. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”

I’d love one.”

Rather than use up what was in the thermos, Julie headed back into the cafe. “I’ll get it for you. How do you drink it?”

Black,” Zack said, fighting to keep his frustration in check. She was heading southeast from Amarillo, whereas his destination was four hundred miles to the northwest. He stole a glance at his watch and began working even faster. Nearly an hour and a half had passed since he walked away from the warden’s car, and his risk of capture was increasing every moment he stayed around Amarillo. Regardless of which way the woman was going, he had to go with her. Putting some miles between himself and Amarillo was all that mattered now. He could ride with her for an hour and double back via a different route later.

The waitress needed to brew another pot of coffee, and by the time Julie returned to her car with the steaming paper cup, her rescuer had nearly finished changing the tire. Snow was already two inches deep on the ground and the biting wind was gathering force, whipping the sides of her coat open and making her eyes water. She saw him rub his bare hands together and thought of the new job that was waiting for him tomorrow—if he could get there. She knew jobs in Texas, especially blue-collar jobs, were scarce, and based on his lack of a car, he was probably badly in need of money. His jeans were new, she realized, noticing for the first time the telltale vertical crease down the front of the legs when he stood up. He had probably bought them in order to make a good impression on his future employer, she decided, and the thought of him doing that sent sympathy pouring through her.

Julie had never before offered a hitchhiker a ride; the risks were far too high, but she decided to do it this time, not only because he’d changed her tire or because he seemed nice, but also because of a simple pair of jeans—new jeans. New jeans, stiff and spotless, obviously purchased by a jobless man who was pinning all his hopes on a brighter future that wasn’t going to materialize unless someone gave him a ride at least partway to his destination so he could start to work.

It looks like you’re finished,” Julie said, walking up to him. She held the cup of coffee out to him and he took it in hands that were red from the cold. There was an aloofness about him that made her hesitate to offer him money, but on the chance he’d prefer that to a ride, she offered anyway. “I’d like to pay you for changing the tire,” she began, and when he curtly shook his head, she added, “In that case, can I give you a ride? I’m going to take the interstate east.”

I’d appreciate the ride,” Zack said, accepting her offer with a brief smile as he quickly reached down and pulled the nylon duffel bags out from under the car. “I’m heading east, too.”

When they got into the car, he told her his name was Alan Aldrich. Julie introduced herself as Julie Mathison, but to make certain he realized she was offering him a ride and nothing more, she carefully addressed him the next time she spoke as Mr. Aldrich. He picked up her cue and thereafter called her Miss Mathison.

Julie relaxed completely after that. The formality of Miss Mathison was completely reassuring, and so was his immediate acceptance of their situation. But when he remained absolutely silent and distant thereafter, she began to wish she hadn’t insisted on formality. She knew she wasn’t good at hiding her thoughts, therefore he’d probably realized at once that she was putting him in his place—a needless insult, considering that he’d shown her only gallant kindness by changing her tire.

THEYD KEN ON THE ROAD for fully ten minutes before Zack felt the strangling tension in his chest begin to dissolve, and he drew a long, full breath—his first easy breath in hours. No, months. Years. Futility and helplessness had raged in him for so long that he felt almost lightheaded without them. A red car roared past them, cut across their lane to exit the interstate, lost traction, and spun around, missing the Blazer by inches—and then only because the young woman beside him handled the four-wheel-drive vehicle with surprising skill. Unfortunately, she also drove too damned fast, with the daredevil aggressiveness and fearless disregard of danger that was uniquely and typically Texan in his experience.

He was wishing there was some way he could suggest she let him drive, when she said in a quietly amused voice, “You can relax now. I’ve slowed down. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

I wasn’t afraid,” he said with unintentional curtness.

She glanced sideways at him and smiled, a slow, knowing smile. “You’re holding onto the dashboard with both hands. That’s usually a dead giveaway.”

Two things struck Zack at once: He’d been in prison so long that lighthearted banter between adult members of the opposite sex had become completely awkward and alien to him and Julie Mathison had a breathtaking smile. Her smile glowed in her eyes and lit up her entire face, transforming what was merely a pretty face into one that was captivating. Since wondering about her was infinitely preferable to worrying about things he couldn’t yet control, Zack concentrated on her. She wore no makeup except for a little lipstick, and there was a freshness about her, a simplicity in the way she wore her thick, shiny brown hair, all of which had made him think she was in her late teens or very early twenties. On the other hand, she seemed too confident and self-assured for a twenty-year-old. “How old are you?” he asked bluntly, then winced at the brusque tactlessness of the question. Obviously if they didn’t catch him and send him back to prison, he was going to have to relearn some things he’d thought were bred into him—like rudimentary courtesy and conversational etiquette with women.

Instead of being irritated by the question, she flashed him another one of those mesmerizing smiles of hers and said in a voice laced with amusement, “I’m twenty-six.”

My God!” Zack heard himself blurt, then he closed his eyes in disgusted disbelief at his gaucheness. “I mean,” he explained, “you don’t look that old.”

She seemed to sense his discomfiture, because she laughed softly and said, “Probably because I’ve only been twenty-six for a few weeks.”

Afraid to trust himself to say anything spontaneous, he watched the windshield wipers carve a steady half-moon in the snow on the windshield while he reviewed his next question for any trace of the tastelessness that had marred his previous words. Feeling this one was safe, he said, “What do you do?”

I’m a schoolteacher.”

You don’t look like one.”

Inexplicably, the laughter rekindled in her eyes and he saw her bite back a smile. Feeling completely disoriented and confused by her unpredictable reactions, he said a little curtly, “Did I just say something funny?”

Julie shook her head and said, “Not at all. That’s what most older people say.”

Zack wasn’t certain whether she’d referred to him as being “older” because he actually looked like an antique to her or if it was a joking retaliation for his ill-advised remarks about her age and appearance. He was puzzling over that when she asked what he did for a living, and he answered with the first occupation that seemed to suit what he’d already told her about himself.

I’m in construction.”

Really? My brother’s in construction work, too—a general contractor. What sort of construction work do you do?”

Zack barely knew which end of a hammer to use on a nail, and he sorely wished he’d picked a more obscure job or, better yet, had remained completely silent. “Walls,” he replied vaguely. “I do walls.”

She took her eyes from the road, which alarmed him, and regarded him intently, which alarmed him even more. “Walls?” she repeated sounding puzzled. Then she explained, “I meant, do you have a specialty?”

Yes. Walls,” Zack said shortly, angry with himself for having begun such a conversation. “That’s my specialty. I put up walls.”

Julie realized she must have misunderstood him the first time. “Drywall!” she exclaimed ruefully. “Of course. You’re a drywall taper?”

Right.”

In that case, I’m surprised you have any trouble finding work. Good tapers are usually in great demand.”

I’m not a good one,” Zack stated flatly, making it clear he wasn’t interested in continuing that conversation.

Julie choked back a startled laugh at his answer and his tone and concentrated on the road. He was a very unusual man. She couldn’t decide whether she liked him and was glad of his company . . . or not. And she couldn’t get over the uneasy feeling that he reminded her of someone. She wished she could see his face without those sunglasses so she could figure out who it was. The city vanished in the rearview mirror and the sky turned the heavy, ominous gray of an early dusk. Silence hung in the car and fat snow smacked her windshield, slowly gaining an edge on the car’s windshield wipers. They’d been on the road for about a half hour when Zack glanced in the outside rearview mirror on his side—and his blood froze. A half mile behind them, and closing fast, was a police car with its red and blue lights rotating furiously.

A second later, he heard the siren begin to wail.

The woman beside him heard it, too; she glanced in the rearview mirror and took her foot off of the gas pedal, slowing the Blazer and angling it onto the shoulder. Zack reached into his jacket pocket, his hand closing on the butt of the automatic, although he had no precise idea at that moment exactly what he meant to do if the cop tried to pull them over. The squad car was so close now, he could see there were not one, but two cops in the front seat. They pulled around the Blazer . . .

And kept going.

There must be an accident up there,” she said as they crested the hill and came to a stop behind what looked like a five-mile traffic jam on the snowy interstate. A moment later two ambulances came tearing around them.

Zack’s rush of adrenalin subsided, leaving him shaken and limp. He felt as if he’d suddenly exceeded his capacity to react with violent emotion to anything whatsoever, which was probably due to his having been trying to execute for two days a carefully thought-out escape plan that should have been a guaranteed success by virtue of its sheer simplicity. And would have been if Hadley hadn’t postponed his trip to Amarillo. Everything else that had gone wrong was a result of that. He wasn’t sure even now if his contact was still in his Detroit hotel, waiting for Zack’s call before he rented a car to drive to Windsor. And until Zack was further away from Amarillo, he didn’t dare stop to find a telephone. Moreover, although Colorado was only 130 miles from Amarillo, with a tiny piece of Oklahoma’s Panhandle in between, he needed to be traveling northwest to get there. Instead, he was now heading southeast. Thinking his Colorado map might also contain a small piece of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, he decided to occupy his time productively by looking for a new route from here to there. Twisting around in his seat, he said, “I think I’ll have a look at a map.”

Julie naturally assumed he was checking his route to whatever Texas town his new job was located in. “Where are you heading?” she asked.

Ellerton,” he replied, sending her a brief smile as he reached past the folded down back seat for his duffel bag near the tailgate. “I interviewed for the job in Amarillo, but I’ve never been out to the site,” he added so she wouldn’t ask questions about the place.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Ellerton.” Several minutes later, when he neatly refolded the map with its typewritten sheet on the top, Julie said, “Did you find Ellerton?”

No.” To dissuade her from asking any further questions about the location of a nonexistent town, he flashed the typewritten sheet at her as he bent over the seat to put it back into his duffel. “I have detailed instructions right here, so I’ll find it.”

She nodded, but her gaze was on the exit up ahead. “I think I’ll get off the interstate here and take a side road to get past the accident.”

Good idea.” The exit turned out to be a rural road that ran roughly parallel with the interstate then began angling off to the right. “This might not have been a good idea after all,” she said several minutes later when the narrow blacktop road began to wind steadily further away from the main highway.

Zack didn’t immediately reply. At the intersection up ahead, there was a deserted gas station and at the edge of the empty lot near the road was an open phone booth. “I’d like to make a phone call if you wouldn’t mind stopping. It won’t take more than a couple of minutes.”

I don’t mind at all.” Julie pulled the Blazer to a stop underneath the street lamp near the phone booth and watched him walk across the headlight’s beams. Dusk had descended even earlier than usual, and the storm seemed to be outrunning them, dumping snow with surprising force, even for the blustery Texas Panhandle. Deciding to exchange her bulky coat for a cardigan sweater that would be more comfortable while she drove, she turned on the radio, hoping for a weather forecast, then she got out of the car, walked around to the tailgate, and opened it.

With the tailgate down she could hear the Amarillo announcer extolling the wisdom of buying a new car at Wilson Ford:

Bob Wilson will meet any price, anywhere, anytime . . .” he enthused.

Listening for a mention of the weather, she took off her coat, pulled her tan mohair sweater out of her suitcase, and glanced at the map that was sticking out of his duffel bag. Since she didn’t have a map with her and wasn’t entirely sure what route would intersect with the interstate or if she was taking her passenger so far out of his way that he’d prefer to try to hitchhike with someone else, she decided to look at his map. She glanced at him in the phone booth, intending to hold up the map and ask his permission, but his shoulder was turned to her and he seemed to be speaking into the phone. Deciding he couldn’t possibly object, Julie folded the typewritten instructions back and opened the map he’d been studying. Spreading it across the tailgate, she held the ends down while the wind tried to whip them out of her hands. It took a full moment before she realized it wasn’t a map of Texas, but of Colorado. Puzzled, she glanced at the neatly typed instructions attached to the map: “Exactly 26.4 miles after you’ve passed the town of Stanton,” it said, “you’ll come to an unmarked crossroads. After that, begin looking for a narrow dirt road that branches off from the right and disappears into the trees about fifteen yards off the highway. The house is at the end of that road, about five miles from your turnoff, and is not visible from the highway or any side of the mountain.”

Julie’s lips parted in surprise. He was heading not for a job in some unknown Texas town, but for a house in Colorado?

On the radio, the announcer finished his commercial and said, “We’ll have an update on the storm coming our way, but first, here’s some late breaking news from the sheriffs department . . .”

Julie scarcely heard him, she was staring at the tall man using the phone, and she felt again that strange, slithering unease . . . of shadowy familiarity. He’d kept his shoulder turned to her, but he’d removed his sunglasses and was holding them in his hand now. As if he sensed she was staring at him, he twisted his head toward her. His eyes narrowed on the open map in her hands at the same instant Julie had her first clear, brightly lit view of his face without the concealing sunglasses.

At approximately four o’clock this afternoon,” said the voice on the radio, “Prison officials discovered that convicted murderer Zachary Benedict escaped while in Amarillo—”

Momentarily paralyzed, Julie stared at that rugged, harsh face of his.

And she recognized it.

No!” she cried as he dropped the phone and started running toward her. She bolted around her side of the car, yanking her door open and diving across the front seat, slapping at the lock on the passenger door a split second after he yanked the door open and grabbed for her wrist. With a strength born of pure terror, she managed to wrench her arm free and throw herself sideways through her open door. She hit the ground on her hip, scrambled to her feet, and started running, her feet sliding on the slippery snow, screaming for someone to help, knowing there was no one around to hear her. He caught her before she’d run five yards and yanked her around and back, trapping her against the side of the Blazer. “Hold still and shut up!”

Take the car!” Julie cried. “Take it and leave me here.”

Ignoring her, he looked over his shoulder at the map of Colorado that had blown against a rusty trash container fifteen feet away when she dropped it. As if in slow motion, Julie watched him remove a shiny black object from his pocket and point it at her, while he backed toward the map and picked it up. A gun. God in heaven, he had a gun!

Her entire body began to tremble uncontrollably while she listened in a kind of hysterical disbelief to the newscaster’s voice belatedly confirming that fact as the news bulletin came to an end: “Benedict is believed to be armed and he is dangerous. If seen, his whereabouts should be reported immediately to the Amarillo police. Citizens should not attempt to approach him. A second escaped convict, Dominic Sandini, has been apprehended and taken into custody . . .”

Her knees threatened to buckle as she watched him coming toward her with a gun in one hand and the map and directions blowing from his other hand. Headlights crested the hill a quarter of a mile away, and he slid the gun back into his pocket to keep it out of sight, but he kept his hand there with it. “Get into the car,” he ordered.

Julie flashed a look over her left shoulder at the approaching pickup truck, frantically calculating the impossible odds of outrunning a bullet or even being able to attract the notice of the vehicle’s driver before Zachary Benedict shot her down. “Don’t try it,” he warned in a deadly voice.

Her heart thundering against her ribs, she watched the pickup turn left at the crossroads, but she didn’t disobey his order. Not here, not yet. Instinct warned her that this deserted stretch of road was too isolated to succeed in anything but getting killed.

Get moving!” He took her arm and headed her to the open door on the driver’s side. Cloaked in the deepening dusk of a snowy winter evening, Julie Mathison walked unsteadily beside a convicted murderer who was holding a gun on her. She had the chilling sensation they were both living a scene from one of his own movies—the one where the hostage got killed.

HER HANDS SHOOK SO VIOLENTLY she had to grope for the keys in the ignition, and when she tried to start the car she nearly flooded the engine because even her legs were jerking with fright. He watched her unemotionally from the passenger seat. “Drive,” he snapped when the engine was started. Julie managed to turn the car around and guide it to the end of the parking lot, but she stopped at the main road, her mind so paralyzed with terror that she couldn’t think of the words to ask the obvious question.

I said drive!”

Which way?” she cried, hating the timid, pleading sound of her voice and loathing the animal beside her for making her experience this uncontrollable terror.

Back the way we came.”

B-back?”

You heard me.”

Rush hour traffic on the snowbound interstate near the city limits was moving at a crawl. Inside the car, the tension and silence were suffocating. Trying desperately to calm her rampaging nerves while she watched for some chance to escape, Julie lifted her shaking hand to change the radio station, fully expecting him to order her not to do it. When he said nothing, she turned the dial and heard a disk jockey’s voice exuberantly introducing the next country/ western song. A moment later the car was filled with the cheerful sounds of “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”

While George Strait sang, Julie looked around at the occupants of the other cars, homeward bound after a long day. The man in the Explorer beside her was listening to the same radio station, his fingers tapping on the steering wheel, keeping time with the melody. He glanced her way, saw her looking at him, and nodded sociably, then he returned his gaze to the front. She knew he hadn’t seen anything abnormal. Everything looked perfectly normal to him, and if he were sitting where she was in the Blazer, it would have seemed perfectly normal. George Strait was singing, just like normal, and the expressway was crowded with motorists who were eager to get home, just like normal, and the snow was beautiful, just like normal. Everything was normal.

Except for one thing.

An escaped murderer was sitting in the seat beside her, holding a gun on her. It was the cozy normalcy of appearances juxtaposed against the demented reality of her situation that suddenly shoved Julie from paralysis to action. Traffic began to move, and her desperation gave birth to inspiration: They’d already passed several cars in ditches on both sides of the road. If she could fake a skid toward the ditch on the right and if she could throw the steering wheel to the left just as they went into the ditch, her door should remain usable while his might very well be trapped. It would work in her own car, but she wasn’t sure how the Blazer’s four-wheel drive would respond.

Beside her, Zack saw her gaze flick repeatedly to the side of the road. He sensed her mounting panic and knew that fear was going to drive her to try something desperate at any moment. “Relax!” he ordered.

Julie’s capacity for fear suddenly reached its limits and her emotions veered crazily from terror to fury. “Relax!” she exploded in a shaking voice, whipping her head around and glaring at him. “How in God’s name do you expect me to relax when you’re sitting there with a gun aimed at me? You tell me that!”

She had a point, Zack thought, and before she attempted something else that might actually get him captured, he decided that helping her to relax was in both of their best interests. “Just stay calm,” he instructed.

Julie stared straight ahead. Traffic was thinning out slightly, picking up some speed, and she began to calculate the feasibility of ramming the Blazer into the cars around her in an attempt to cause a major pileup. Such an action would cause the police to be summoned. That would be very good.

But she and the other innocent motorists involved in the collision would likely end up being shot by Zachary Benedict.

That would be very bad.

She was wondering if his gun had a full clip of nine shells in it and whether he would actually massacre helpless people, when he said in a calm, condescending voice that adults use on hysterical children, “Nothing is going to happen to you, Julie. If you do as you’re told, you’ll be fine. I need transportation to the state line, and you have a car, it’s as simple as that. Unless this car is so important to you that you want to risk your life to get me out of it, all you have to do is drive and not attract anyone’s attention. If a cop spots us, there’s going to be shooting, and you’ll be in the middle of it. So just be a good girl and relax.”

If you want me to relax,” she retorted, goaded past all endurance by his patronizing tone and her strained nerves, “then you let me hold that gun, and I’ll show you relaxed!” She saw his brows snap together, but when he didn’t make a retaliatory move, she almost believed that he truly didn’t intend to harm her—so long as she didn’t jeopardize his escape. That possibility had the perverse effect of subduing her fears and simultaneously unleashing her frustrated fury at the torment he’d already put her through. “Furthermore,” she continued wrathfully, “don’t speak to me like I’m a child and don’t call me Julie! I was Ms. Mathison to you when I thought you were a nice, decent man who needed a job and who’d bought those d-damned jeans to impress your em-employer. If it hadn’t been for those damned j-jeans, I wouldn’t be in this mess—” To Julie’s horror, she felt the sudden sting of tears, so she shot him what she hoped was a disdainful look and then glared fixedly out the windshield.

Zack lifted his brows and regarded her in impassive silence, but inwardly he was stunned and reluctantly impressed by her unexpected show of courage. Turning his head, he looked at the traffic opening up ahead of them and at the thick, falling snow that had seemed like a curse a few hours ago but had actually diverted the attention of the police who had to deal with stranded motorists before they could begin to search for him. Last, he considered the stroke of luck that had put him not in the small rented car that had been towed away while he watched, but in a heavy four-wheel-drive vehicle that could easily navigate in the snow without getting bogged down on the less traveled route he intended to take up into the Colorado mountains. All of the delays and complications that had infuriated him for the last two days had turned out to be bonuses, he realized. He was going to make it to Colorado—thanks to Julie Mathison. Ms. Mathison, he corrected himself with an inner grin as he relaxed back in his seat. His flash of amusement vanished as quickly as it had come, because there was something about that newscast he’d heard earlier that was belatedly beginning to worry him: Dominic Sandini had been referred to as “another escaped convict” who “was apprehended and taken into custody.” If Sandini had stuck to the plan, then Warden Hadley should have been crowing to the press about the loyalty of one of his trustees rather than referring to Sandini as an apprehended convict.

Zack told himself that the information on the newscast had simply been jumbled, which accounted for the mistake about Sandini, and he forced himself to concentrate on the irate young teacher beside him instead. Although he desperately needed her and her car right now, she was also a serious complication to his plans. She probably knew he was heading for Colorado; moreover, she might have seen enough of that map and the directions with it to be able to tell the police the vicinity of Zack’s hideaway. If he left her at the Texas-Oklahoma border or a little further north at the Oklahoma-Colorado border, she’d be able to tell the authorities where he was going and exactly what kind of car he was driving as well. By now, his face was already plastered all over every television screen in the country, so he couldn’t possibly hope to rent or buy another car without being recognized. Furthermore, he wanted the police to believe he’d managed to fly to Detroit and cross into Canada.

Julie Mathison seemed to be both a godsend and a disastrous kink in his plans. Rather than curse fate for saddling him with her and the deadly threat to his freedom that she represented, he decided to give fate an opportunity to work out this problem and to try to help them both relax. Reaching behind him for the thermos of coffee, he thought back to her last remarks and came up with what seemed like a good conversational opening. In a carefully offhand, nonthreatening tone, he inquired sociably, “What’s wrong with my jeans?”

She gaped at him in blank confusion. “What?”

You said something about my ‘damned jeans’ being the only reason you offered me a ride,” he explained, filling the top of the thermos with coffee. “What’s wrong with my jeans?”

Julie swallowed an hysterical surge of angry laughter. She was concerned about her life, and he was concerned about making a fashion statement!

What,” he repeated determinedly, “did you mean?”

She was on the verge of an angry retort when two things occurred to her at once—that it was insane to deliberately antagonize an armed man and that if she could make him relax his guard by indulging in small talk with him, her chances to either escape or get out of this alive would be vastly improved. Trying to inject a polite, neutral tone into her voice, she drew a long breath and said without taking her eyes from the road, “I noticed your jeans were new.”

What did that have to do with your deciding to offer me a ride?”

Bitterness at her own gullibility filled Julie’s voice. “Since you didn’t have a car and you implied you didn’t have a job, I assumed you must be having a hard time financially. Then you said you were hoping to get a new job, and I noticed the crease in your jeans . . .” Her voice trailed off when she realized with a disgusted jolt that instead of the nearly destitute man she’d thought him to be he was actually a mega millionaire movie star.

Go on,” he prodded, his voice tinged with puzzlement.

I leapt to the obvious conclusion, for heaven’s sake! I figured you’d bought new jeans so you could make a good impression on your employer, and I imagined how important that must have been to you while you were buying them in the store and how much hope you must have been feeling when you bought them, and I-I couldn’t bear the thought that your hope was going to be trashed if I didn’t offer you a ride. So even though I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker in my life, I couldn’t stand to see you miss having your chance.”

Zack was not only stunned, he was unwillingly touched. Kindness like hers, a kindness that also required some kind of personal risk or sacrifice, had been absent from his existence for all the years he’d spent in prison. And even before that, he realized. Shoving the unsettling thought aside, he said, “You envisioned all that from a crease in a pair of jeans? You’ve got one hell of an imagination,” he added with a sardonic shake of his head.

I’m obviously a bad judge of character, too,” Julie said bitterly. From the corner of her eye, she saw his left arm swing toward her and she jumped, muffling a scream before she realized he was only holding out a cup of coffee from the thermos. In a quiet tone that almost seemed to carry an apology for adding to her fright, he said, “I thought this might help.”

I’m not in the slightest danger of falling asleep at the wheel, thanks to you.”

Drink some anyway,” Zack ordered, determined to ease her terror even while he knew his presence was the source of it. “It will—” he hesitated, feeling at a loss for words, and added, “It will make things seem more normal.”

Julie turned her head and gaped at him, her expression making it eloquently clear she found his “concern” for her not only completely revolting, but insane. She was on the verge of telling him that, but she remembered the gun in his pocket, so she took the coffee in a shaking hand and turned away from him, sipping it and staring at the road ahead.

Beside her, Zack watched the telltale trembling of the coffee cup as she raised it to her lips, and he felt a ridiculous urge to apologize for terrifying her like this. She had a lovely profile he thought, studying her face in the light of the dashboard, with a small nose and stubborn chin and high cheekbones. She also had magnificent eyes, he decided, thinking of the way they’d shot sparks at him a few minutes ago. Spectacular eyes. He felt a sharp stab of guilty shame for using and frightening this innocent girl who’d been trying to be a good Samaritan—and because he had every intention of continuing to use her, he felt like the animal everybody believed he was. To silence his conscience, he resolved to make things as easy on her as he possibly could, which led him to decide to engage her in further conversation.

He’d noticed she wore no wedding ring, which meant she wasn’t married. He tried to remember what people—civilized people on the “outside”—talked about for idle conversation, and he finally said, “Do you like teaching?”

She turned again, her incredible eyes wide with suppressed antagonism. “Do you expect me,” she uttered in disbelief, “to engage in polite small talk with you?”

Yes!” he snapped, irrationally angry at her reluctance to let him make amends. “I do. Start talking!”

I love teaching,” Julie shot back shakily, hating how easily he could intimidate her. “How far do you intend for me to drive you?” she demanded as they passed a sign that said the Oklahoma border was twenty miles away.

Oklahoma,” Zack said, half-truthfully.

WERE IN OKLAHOMA,” JULIE POINTED out the instant they drove past the sign announcing they were there.

He shot her a look of grim amusement. “I see that.”

Well? Where do you want to get out?”

Keep driving.”

Keep driving?” she cried in nervous fury. “Now look, you miserable—I’m not driving you all the way to Colorado!”

Zack had his answer, she knew where he was going.

I won’t do it!” Julie warned shakily, unaware that she had just sealed her fate. “I can’t.”

With an inner sigh at the battle she was bound to wage, he said, “Yes, Ms. Mathison, you can. And you will.”

His unflappable calm was the last straw. “Go to hell!” Julie cried, swinging the steering wheel hard to the right before he could stop her and sending the vehicle careening onto the shoulder as she slammed on the brakes and brought it to a lurching stop. “Take the car!” she pleaded. “Take it and leave me here. I won’t tell anyone I’ve seen you or where you’re going. I swear I won’t tell anyone.”

Zack reined in his temper and tried to soothe her with an attempt at levity. “In the movies, people always promise that same thing,” he remarked conversationally, glancing over his shoulder at the cars flying past. “I’ve always thought it sounded asinine.”

This isn’t the movies!”

But you do agree that it is an absurd promise,” he argued with a slight smile. “You know it is. Admit it, Julie.”

Shocked that he was apparently trying to tease her as if they were friends, Julie stared at him in furious silence, knowing he was right about the promise being ridiculous, but refusing to admit it.

You can’t really expect me to believe,” he continued, his voice softening a little, “that you’d let me get away with kidnapping you and stealing your car and then be so grateful to me for doing both that you’d keep a promise to me you made under extreme duress? Doesn’t that sound a little insane to you?”

Do you expect me to debate psychology with you when my whole life is at stake!” she burst out.

I realize you’re afraid, but your life isn’t at stake unless you put it there. You aren’t in any danger unless you create it.”

Perhaps it was exhaustion or the low timbre of his voice or the steadiness of his gaze, but as Julie looked at his solemn features, she found herself almost believing him.

I don’t want you to get hurt,” he continued, “and you won’t, as long as you don’t do anything that attracts attention to me and alerts the law—”

In which case,” Julie interrupted bitterly, snapping out of her trance, “you will blow my brains out with your gun. That’s very comforting, Mr. Benedict. Thank you.”

Zack held his temper in check and explained, “If the cops catch up with me, they’ll have to kill me, because I’m not going to surrender. Given the vigilante mentality of most cops, there’s a good chance you’ll be hurt or killed in the fray. I don’t want that to happen. Can you understand that?”

Furious with herself for being subdued by empty gentle words from a ruthless murderer, Julie jerked her gaze from his and stared out the front window. “Do you actually think you can convince me you’re Sir Galahad and not a depraved monster?”

Evidently not,” he said irritably.

When she refused to look at him again, Zack gave an impatient sign and said curtly, “Stop sulking and start driving. I need to find a roadside telephone at one of these exits.”

The moment his voice chilled, Julie realized how foolish she’d been to ignore his “friendly” overture and antagonize him. What she probably ought to be doing, she belatedly decided as she pulled back out onto the highway, was fooling him into believing she was resigned to going along with him. As the snowflakes danced in front of her headlights, her mind began to calm and she thought carefully about possible ways out of her predicament, because it now seemed horribly likely that he was going to force her to drive him through Colorado as well as Oklahoma. Finding a means to foil his plan and get away became not only a necessity, but a downright challenge. To do that, she knew she had to be objective and to keep all traces of fright and fury from clouding her thoughts. She should be able to do that, Julie reminded herself bracingly. After all, she was no sheltered, unworldly, pampered hothouse flower. She’d spent the first eleven years of her life on the streets of Chicago and done just fine! Chewing on her lower lip, she decided to try to think of her ordeal as if it were merely a plot in one of the mystery novels she loved to read. She’d always felt some of the heroines in those novels behaved with sublime stupidity, which was what she’d been doing by antagonizing her captor, she decided. A clever heroine would do the opposite, she’d be devious and find ways to make Benedict relax his guard completely. If he did that, her chances to escape—and get him returned to prison where he belonged—would be dramatically increased. To accomplish that goal, she could try to pretend she was coming to think of this nightmare as an adventure, maybe she could even pretend to be on the side of her captor, which would require a stellar performance, but she was willing to try.

Despite her grave misgivings about her ability to succeed, Julie suddenly felt a welcome calm and determination sweep through her, banishing her fear and leaving her head clearer. She waited several moments before speaking, so that her capitulation wouldn’t seem too sudden and suspicious to him, then she drew a steadying breath and tried to inject a rueful note into her voice: “Mr. Benedict,” she said, actually managing to cast him a slight, sideways smile, “I appreciate what you said about not intending to hurt me. I didn’t mean to be sarcastic. I was afraid, that’s all.”

And now you aren’t afraid?” he countered, his voice laced with skepticism.

Well, yes,” Julie hastened to assure him. “But not nearly so much. That’s what I meant.”

May I inquire what brought about this sudden transformation? What were you thinking about while you were so quiet?”

A book,” she said because it seemed safe. “A mystery.”

One you’ve read? Or one you’re thinking about writing?”

Her mouth opened, but no words came out, and then she realized he’d inadvertently handed her the perfect means to his own defeat. “I’ve always wanted to write a mystery someday,” she improvised madly, “and it occurred to me that this could be, well, first-hand research.”

I see.”

She darted another glance at him and was startled by the warmth of his smile. This devil could charm a snake, she realized, recalling that same smile from the days when it had flashed across movie screens and raised the temperature of the entire female audience.

You are a remarkably brave young woman, Julie.”

She choked her irate demand to be called Ms. Mathison. “Actually, I’m the world’s greatest coward, Mr.—”

My name is Zack,” he interrupted, and in his impassive tone she sensed a return of his suspicion.

Zack,” she hastily agreed. “You’re quite right. We ought to use first names, since we’re apparently going to be together for—?”

A while,” he provided, and Julie made a Herculean effort to conceal her frustrated fury at his oblique reply.

A while,” she agreed, careful to keep her tone neutral. “Well, that’s probably long enough for you to help me with some preliminary research,” she hesitated, thinking of what to ask him. “Would you, well, consider giving me some insight into what prison is really like. That would be helpful for my story.”

Would it?”

He was scaring the hell out of her with the subtle, ever-changing nuances in his voice. Never before had she known a man or woman who could convey so much with imperceptible changes in his voice, nor had she heard a voice like his in her life. It had a rich baritone timbre that could switch instantly and unaccountably from polite to amused to icy and ominous. In answer to his question, Julie nodded vigorously, trying to counteract his skeptical tone by injecting energy and conviction in her own. “Absolutely.” In a flash of inspiration, she realized that if he thought she might be on his side, he’d be even more likely to lower his guard. “I’ve heard that a lot of innocent people get sent to prison. Were you innocent?”

Every convict claims he’s innocent.”

Yes, but are you?” she persisted, dying for him to say he was so she could pretend to believe him.

The jury said I was guilty.”

Juries have been wrong before.”

Twelve honest, upstanding citizens,” he replied in a voice suddenly iced with loathing, “decided I was.”

I’m sure they tried to be objective.”

Bullshit!” he said so furiously that Julie’s hands tightened on the steering wheel under a fresh onslaught of fear and dread. “They convicted me of being rich and famous!” he snapped. “I watched their faces during the trial, and the more the district attorney raved about my privileged life and the amoral standards of Hollywood, the more that jury wanted my blood! The whole damned, sanctimonious, God-fearing bunch of them knew there was a ‘reasonable doubt’ I didn’t commit that murder and that’s why they didn’t recommend the death penalty. They’d all watched too much Perry Mason—they figured if I didn’t do it, I should be able to prove who did.”

Julie felt the perspiration break out on her palms at the rage in his voice. Now, more than ever before, she realized how imperative it was to make him believe she sympathized with him. “But you weren’t guilty, were you? You just couldn’t prove who really murdered your wife, is that it?” she persevered in a trembling voice.

What difference does it make?” he snapped.

It m-makes a difference to me.”

For a moment he studied her in frozen silence and then his voice made one of its abrupt, compellingly soft turns. “If it truly makes a difference to you, then no, I didn’t kill her.”

He was lying, of course. He had to be. “I believe you.” Trying to heap more reassurances on him, she added, “And if you are innocent, then you have every right to try to escape from prison.”

His answer was an uncomfortably long silence during which she felt his piercing gaze examining every feature on her face, then he said abruptly, “The sign said there’s a phone up ahead. Pull over when you see it.”

All right.”

The telephone was beside the road and Julie pulled off into the drive. She was watching the outside rearview mirror in hopes of seeing a trucker or some other driver she could flag down but there was little traffic on the snowy road. His voice made her snap her head around just as he pulled her car keys from the ignition. “I hope,” he said in a sardonic voice, “you won’t think I doubt your word about believing I’m innocent and wanting to see me escape. I’m simply taking the car keys because I happen to be a very cautious man.”

Julie amazed herself by managing to shake her head and say convincingly, “I don’t blame you.” With a brief smile, he got out of the car, but he kept his hand in his pocket with the gun as a deliberate menacing reminder to her, and he left the passenger door open, undoubtedly so he could see what she was doing while he made his call. Short of trying to outrun him and a possible bullet, Julie had no hope of escaping right now, but she could start preparing for the future. As he stepped into the snow, she said with all the meekness she could muster, “Would you mind if I get a pen and paper out of my purse so that I can make some notes while you’re on the phone—you know, jot down feelings and things so that I can use them in my book?” Before he could refuse, which he looked about to do, she reached cautiously for her purse on the back seat while pointing out reasons he shouldn’t deny her request. “Writing always calms my nerves,” she said, “and you can search my purse, if you like. You’ll see I don’t have another set of keys or any weapons.” To prove it she opened the purse and handed it to him. He gave her an impatient, preoccupied look that made her feel as if he didn’t believe her story about writing a novel for a moment and was simply going along with it to keep her docile.

Go ahead,” he said, handing the purse to her. As he turned away, Julie pulled out a small note pad and her pen. Keeping an eye on his back, she watched him pick up the telephone and put coins in it, then she quickly wrote the same message on three different slips of paper: CALL POLICE. I’VE BEEN KIDNAPPED. From the comer of her eye, she saw him watching her and she waited until he turned away to talk to whoever he was calling, then she tore off the first three sheets, folded them in half and tucked them into the outside pocket of her purse where she could easily reach them. She opened the notebook again and stared at it, her mind frantically searching for ways to pass the notes to people who could aid her. Struck with a plausible idea, she stole a glance at him to be sure he wasn’t looking, then she quickly took one of the notes from her purse and folded it into a ten-dollar bill from her wallet.

She had a plan, she was executing it, and the knowledge that she was now taking some control of her future banished much of her lingering fear and panic. The rest of her newfound calm owed itself to something besides having a plan in mind. The feeling came from an instinctive but unshakable conviction that one thing Zachary Benedict had said was true: He did not want to harm her. Therefore, he wasn’t going to shoot her in cold blood. In fact, if she tried to escape now, she was certain he would chase her, but he wouldn’t shoot her unless it looked as if she were going to flag down a passing car. Since there were no cars coming, Julie saw no point in flinging open her door and making a break for it right now—not when he could outrun her, and all she would gain was to put him permanently on his guard. Better by far to appear to cooperate and lull him into relaxing as much as possible. Zachary Benedict might be an ex-con, but she wasn’t the gullible, easily intimidated coward she’d been acting like until now. Once, she’d had to live by her wits, she reminded herself bracingly. While he was a pampered teenage movie idol, Julie was lying and stealing and surviving on the streets! If she concentrated on that now, she’d be able to hold her own with him, she was absolutely positive! Well, almost positive. So long as she kept her head, she had an excellent chance of winning this contest of wits. Taking her notebook out, she began jotting down saccharine comments about her kidnapper in case he asked to see what she’d written. Finished, she reread her absurd commentary:

Zachary Benedict is fleeing from unjust imprisonment caused by a biased jury. He seems to be an intelligent, kind, warm man—a victim of circumstances. I believe in him.

The commentary was, she decided with an inner grimace, the worst piece of pure fiction ever written. So engrossed was she that she experienced only a momentary jolt of dread when she realized he’d finished his call and was climbing into the car. Quickly closing the notebook and shoving it into her purse, she asked politely, “Did you talk to whoever it is you’re trying to call?”

His eyes narrowed sharply on her smile and she had an uneasy feeling she was overdoing her “comradely” performance. “No. He’s still there, but he isn’t in his room. I’ll try again in a half hour or so.” Julie was digesting that tidbit of useless information when he reached for her purse and took out her notebook. “Just a precaution,” he said in a sardonic voice as he flipped open the notebook. “You understand, I’m sure?”

I understand,” Julie averred, caught between nervous hilarity and chagrin as she watched his jaw slacken when he read what she’d written.

Well?” she said, widening her eyes with sham innocence. “What do you think?”

He closed the notebook and slid it back into her purse. “I think you’re too gullible to be turned loose in the world if you actually believe all that.”

I’m very gullible,” she eagerly assured him, turning on the ignition and pulling out onto the highway. If he thought her stupid and naive, that was great, terrific.

FOR THE NEXT HALF HOUR, they drove in silence with only an occasional desultory comment about the bad weather and worsening driving conditions, but Julie was watching the side of the road for a billboard that would enable her to put her plan into action. Any billboard that advertised a fast food restaurant at an approaching exit would do. When she finally saw one, her heart doubled its beat. “I know you probably don’t want to stop and go into a restaurant, but I’m starving,” she said carefully, pleasantly. “That sign says there’s a McDonald’s up ahead. We could get some food at the drive-through window.”

He glanced at the clock and started to shake his head, so she hastily added, “I have to eat something every couple of hours because I have . . .” she hesitated a split second, thinking frantically for the right medical term for a problem she didn’t have “ . . . hypoglycemia! I’m sorry, but if I don’t eat something, I get very ill and faint and . . .”

Fine, we’ll stop there.”

Julie almost shouted with nervous triumph when she pulled off on the exit ramp and the McDonald’s golden arches came into view. The restaurant was between two open lots with a kiddy playground on the side of it. “We’re stopping just in time,” she added, “because I’m feeling so dizzy that I won’t be able to drive much longer.”

Ignoring his narrowed look, Julie flipped on the turn indicator and pulled into the McDonald’s entrance. Despite the storm, there were several cars in the parking lot, though not nearly so many as Julie wished there were, and she could see a few families seated at the tables inside the restaurant. Following the directions on the sign, she drove around behind the restaurant to the drive-through window and stopped at the speaker. “What would you like?” she asked.

Before his imprisonment, Zack wouldn’t have stopped at a fast-food restaurant like this if he had to go all day without eating. Now he discovered his mouth was watering at the thought of a simple hamburger and french fries. Freedom did that, he decided after telling Julie what he wanted to eat. Freedom made the air smell fresher and food sound better. It also made a man more tense and suspicious, because there was something about his captive’s over bright smile that was making him extremely wary. She looked so fresh and ingenuous with those big blue eyes and soft smile, but she’d switched much too quickly from terrified captive to furious hostage to her current attitude of friendly ally.

Julie repeated their order into the microphone—two cheeseburgers, two french fries, two Cokes.

That’ll be $5.09,” the voice said over the microphone. “Please drive around to the first window.”

As she pulled up alongside the first window, she saw him dig into his pocket for money, but she shook her head adamantly, already reaching into her purse. “I’ll buy,” she said, managing to look straight into his eyes. “It’s my treat. I insist.”

After a moment’s hesitation, he took his hand out of his pocket, but his dark brows drew together into a baffled frown. “That’s very sporting of you.”

That’s me. I’m a good sport. Everyone always says so,” she babbled mindlessly, removing the folded ten-dollar bill with her handwritten note saying that she was being kidnapped folded inside of it. Unable to meet his unnerving gaze any longer, Julie hastily looked away and focused all her attention on the teenage girl in the drive-through window, who was regarding her with bored impatience. The girl’s name tag said her name was Tiffany.

That’ll be $5.09,” Tiffany said.

Julie held out the ten-dollar bill and stared hard at the girl, her face beseeching. Her life depended on this bored-looking teenager with a frizzy ponytail. As if in slow motion, Julie saw her unfold the ten-dollar bill . . . The small notepaper floated to the ground . . . Tiffany bent and picked it up, popping her gum . . . She straightened . . . She glanced at Julie . . . “This yours?” she asked, holding it up, peering into the car without reading what it said.

I don’t know,” Julie said, trying to force the girl to read the words. “It might be. What does it say—” she began, then stifled a scream as Zachary Benedict’s hand clamped on her arm and the barrel of the pistol dug into her side. “Never mind, Tiffany,” he said smoothly, leaning around Julie and holding out his hand. “That’s my note. It’s part of a joke.” The cashier glanced at the note, but it was impossible to tell if she’d actually read it in the instant before she held it in her outstretched hand toward the car. “Here you are, sir,” she said, leaning forward past Julie and handing it to him. Julie ground her teeth as Zachary Benedict gave the girl a phoney, appreciative smile that made Tiffany blush with pleasure as she counted out the change due them from Julie’s ten-dollar bill. “Here’s your order,” she said. Julie automatically reached for the white bags of food and Cokes, her frightened face silently pleading with the girl to call the police or the manager or someone! She passed the bags to Benedict without daring to meet his gaze, her hands trembling so violently she nearly dropped the Cokes. As she drove away from the window, she expected some sort of repercussions from him, but since her plan had failed miserably, Julie was not prepared for the eruption of raw rage she heard: “You stupid little bitch, are you trying to get yourself killed? Pull over in the parking lot, right there where she can see us, she’s watching.”

Julie obeyed automatically, her chest rising and falling in sharp, shallow little breaths. “Eat this,” he commanded, shoving the cheeseburger in her face. “And smile with every bite, or so help me God . . .”

Again, Julie obeyed. She chewed without tasting, every fiber of her being concentrated on calming her shattered nerves so that she could think again. The tension in the car grew into a taut, living thing that added to her strained nerves. She spoke simply to break the silence. “C-could I have m-my Coke,” she said, reaching for the white sack of drinks on the floor near his feet. His hand clamped on her wrist in a vice that threatened to break the fragile bones. “You’re hurting me!” Julie cried, assailed by a fresh onslaught of panic. His hand tightened more painfully before he flung her wrist away. She reared back in her seat, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes, swallowing and rubbing her throbbing arm. Until a few moments ago, he hadn’t actually tried to inflict pain on her, and she’d lulled herself with the misconception that he wasn’t a depraved indiscriminate killer but rather a man who’d taken revenge on his unfaithful wife in an act of jealous insanity. Why, she wondered desperately, had she allowed herself to think that he wouldn’t be just as likely to murder a woman whom he’d taken captive or a teenager who could sound an alarm and get him captured. The answer was that she’d been fooled and deluded by her memories—memories of all those glamorous stories about him in magazines, memories of countless hours spent in theaters with her brothers and, later, with her dates admiring him and even fantasizing about him. At eleven years old, she hadn’t understood why her brothers and all their friends thought Zack Benedict was so special, but within a few years, she’d understood it perfectly. Ruggedly handsome, unattainable, sexy and cynical, witty and tough. And since Julie had been away on a summer scholarship in Europe during his famous trial, she had no knowledge of any of the sordid details, nothing concrete to offset all those lovely on-screen images that had seemed so real to her in theaters. The shameful truth was that when he’d told her he was innocent, she’d believed it might be possible he was telling the truth because it then made sense for him to try to escape so he could prove it. For some incomprehensible reason, a tiny part of her still clung to that possibility, probably because it helped her control her fear, but it didn’t lessen her desperation to get away from him. Even if he was innocent of the crime for which he was sent to prison, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t kill to prevent being sent back there, and that was if he was innocent—a very big, highly unlikely if.

Her whole body jerked in alarm when the bag on the floor crackled. “Here,” he snapped, shoving a Coke toward her.

Refusing to look at him, Julie stretched her hand out and took it, her gaze fastened on the view through the front windshield. She now realized her only hope of escaping without getting anyone hurt or killed was to make it easier for him to take off in her car and leave her behind than it was to stick around and try to shoot his way out of his predicament. Which meant she had to be out of the car and in full view of onlookers. She’d blown her first attempt to escape; he knew now she was desperate enough to try again. He’d be waiting. Watching. When she tried again, everything would have to be exactly right. She knew instinctively she wasn’t likely to live to have a third chance. At least there was no further need to carry on any nauseating charade that she was on his side.

Let’s get going,” he snapped.

Wordlessly, Julie turned on the ignition and pulled out of the parking lot.

A quarter of an hour later, he ordered her to pull over at a roadside phone again, and he made another phone call. He had not spoken a word except to tell her to pull over, and Julie suspected he knew that silence wreaked more havoc on her nerves than anything else he could do to intimidate her. This time when he made his phone call, he never took his eyes off her. When he got back into the car, Julie looked at his impassive features and couldn’t endure the silence another moment. Giving him a haughty stare, she nodded at the phone booth and said, “Bad news, I hope?”

Zack bit back a grin at her rigid, unremitting rebellion. Her pretty face belied a stubborn courage and acid wit that continually caught him off guard. Instead of replying that the news was very good, he shrugged. Silence ate at her, he’d noticed. “Drive,” he said, leaning back in his seat and stretching out his legs, idly watching her graceful fingers on the steering wheel.

In a few short hours, a man who looked very much like Zack would drive from Detroit through the Windsor Tunnel into Canada. At the border, he would make enough of a nervous spectacle of himself to cause the customs officials there to remember him. When Zack remained at large for a day or two, those customs officials should remember him and notify U.S. authorities that their escaped convict had probably crossed into Canada. Within a week, the hunt for Zack Benedict should be mostly centered in Canada, leaving Zack much more free to continue with the rest of his plan. For now, for the next week, it rather looked as if he had nothing whatsoever to do except relax and revel in his freedom. It seemed like a delightful notion and it would have put him rather in charity with the world if it weren’t for his troublesome hostage. She was the only kink in his relaxation. A very big kink, since she apparently wasn’t half so easily subdued as he’d thought she would be. At the moment, she was driving unnecessarily slow and casting angry looks at him. “What’s the problem?” he clipped.

The problem is that I need to use a bathroom.”

Later!”

But—” He looked at her then and Julie realized it was useless to argue.

An hour later, they crossed the Colorado state line and he spoke for the first time. “There’s a truck stop up ahead. Get off at the exit and if it looks all right, we’ll stop there.”

That truck stop turned out to be too busy to suit him, and it was another half hour before he found a service station that was relatively empty and laid out to please him with an attendant positioned in the island between the pumps so he could pay for gas without going inside and with rest rooms on the outside of the building. “Let’s go,” he said. “Take it slow,” he warned as she got out of the car and started toward the rest room door. He grasped her elbow as if to help her walk through the snow, his feet crunching the crusty powder in perfect rhythm with hers as he matched her stride for stride. When they reached the rest room. instead of letting go of her arm, he reached out and opened the door, and Julie’s temper exploded. “Do you intend to come in here with me and watch?” she burst out in furious disbelief.

Ignoring her, he looked around the tiny tiled room, checking for windows, she supposed, and finding none, he let go of her arm. “Make it quick. And, Julie, don’t do anything stupid.”

Like what?” she demanded. “Hang myself with toilet paper? Go away, damn you.” Yanking her arm free, she marched inside, and it was as she was closing the door, that the obvious solution of locking the door and staying inside hit her. With an inner cry of triumph, she turned the lock with her fingertips and slammed the door at the same time, throwing her shoulder against it. The door slammed into the jamb with a satisfying metallic thud, but the lock didn’t seem to catch, and she had a sickening feeling he was holding the doorknob on the other side to prevent it from happening.

From the other side of the door, he twisted the knob and it turned in her hand at the same time his tone of amused resignation told her she was right. “You have a minute and a half before I open this door, Julie.”

Great. He was undoubtedly a pervert too, she thought as she hastily finished what she’d gone in there to do. She was washing her hands in freezing water in the sink when he opened the door and said, “Time’s up.”

Instead of getting into the Blazer, he hung back, his hand in his pocket with the gun. “Put gas in the car,” he instructed, lounging against the side of the car and watching her while she obeyed. “Pay for it,” he ordered when she was done, keeping his face turned away from the man in the booth.

Julie’s outraged sense of thrift momentarily overrode her frustration and fear, and she started to object when she realized he was holding two twenty-dollar bills in his outstretched hand. Her resentment was compounded a dozen times by the realization that he was biting back a half-smile. “I think you’re starting to enjoy this!” she snapped bitterly, yanking the money out of his hand.

Zack watched her rigid shoulders as she turned away and reminded himself that it would be far wiser and far more beneficial if he could neutralize some of her hostility as he’d intended to do earlier. If he could put her in a decent humor, that would be even better. And so he said with a low chuckle, “You’re absolutely right. I think I am beginning to enjoy this.”

Bastard,” she replied.

*  *  *

Dawn was edging the gray sky with pink when Julie decided he might have fallen asleep. He’d made her stick to the back roads, avoiding the interstates, which made traveling in the deep snow so treacherous that she’d only averaged thirty miles per hour for long stretches. Three times they’d been held up for hours because of accidents on the highway, and still he made her go on. All night long, the radio had been filled with news bulletins about his escape, but the further into Colorado they traveled, the less was being made of his disappearance, no doubt because no one expected him to be traveling north, away from major airports, trains, and buses. The sign she’d passed a mile back said there was a picnic-rest area five miles ahead, and Julie was praying that this one, like the last one they’d passed, would have at least a few trucks pulled off into it, their drivers asleep in the cab. The most feasible idea she’d been able to come up with during the endless, exhausting drive was the only one that fulfilled the dual criteria of forcing him to take the car while leaving her behind. It seemed as foolproof as anything under the circumstances: She was going to pull into the rest area and when she was alongside the parked trucks, she would slam on the Blazer’s brakes and jump out of the car, screaming for help in a voice loud enough to wake up the trucks’ occupants. Then, if her entire fantasy came true, several burly truck drivers—preferably gigantic men holding guns and wearing brass knuckles—would lurch awake and jump out of the trucks, racing to her rescue. They would wrestle Zachary Benedict to the ground, with Julie pitching in to help, then they’d disarm him and call the police on their CB radios.

That was the best possible scenario, Julie knew, but even if only a fraction of that happened—if only one driver woke up and got out to investigate the cause of her screams—she was still relatively certain she’d be free of Zachary Benedict. Because from the moment she raised an alarm and attracted notice, his only sensible choice would be to take off in the Blazer. He’d have nothing to gain by hanging around to shoot her and then walking from truck to truck to shoot the drivers, not when the first gunshot would only alert all the other drivers. Any attempt on his part to reenact the final scene from Gunfight at the O.K. Corral would be just plain stupid, and stupid was one thing Benedict was not.

Julie was so certain of that, that she was going to bet her life on it.

She slanted another searching look at him to make certain he was sleeping; His arms were crossed over his chest, his long legs were stretched out in front of him, his head rested against the side window. His breathing was steady and relaxed.

He was asleep.

Elated, Julie gently eased her foot off the accelerator slowly, imperceptibly, watching the speedometer drop from forty-five miles per hour to forty-two, then very slowly to forty. In order to pull into the rest area without a sudden change in speed that would alert her passenger, she needed to be traveling at no more than thirty miles an hour when she reached the exit. She held the speed at forty for a full minute, then she eased up on the accelerator again, her leg trembling with the effort to make each change undetectable. The car slowed to thirty-five miles an hour, and Julie reached out and turned the radio a little louder to compensate for what seemed like a quieter atmosphere inside the car.

The rest area was still a quarter mile away, shielded from view of the highway by a stand of pine trees, when Julie reduced her speed to thirty and turned the steering wheel a fraction of an inch at a time to begin angling off the highway. Uttering a disjointed prayer that she’d find trucks there, she held her breath as she drove around the trees, then expelled it in a silent rush of gratitude and relief. Up ahead, three trucks were parked across from the small building that housed the rest rooms, and although there was no one moving about in the early dawn, she thought she could hear one of the diesel engines running. Her heart racing like a trip hammer, she ignored the temptation to make her move now. To maximize her chances, she needed to be directly beside the trucks, so that she could reach the door of one before Benedict could catch her.

Fifteen yards behind the first truck, Julie was absolutely certain she heard the engine, and her toe angled stealthily toward the brake, all her other senses so focused on the cab of the truck that she yelped in shock when Zachary Benedict suddenly sat up. “Where the hell—” he began, but Julie didn’t give him a chance to finish. Slamming on the brake, she grabbed the door handle and flung open the door, throwing herself out of the moving car, landing on her side in the snowy ruts. In a blur of pain and terror she saw the Blazer’s rear tire roll past, missing her hand by inches before the car lurched to a jarring stop. “HELP ME!” she screamed, scrambling to her knees, her feet sliding as they fought for traction in the slush and snow. “HELP ME!”

She was on her feet, running toward the cab of the closest truck when Zachary Benedict exploded from the Blazer, cutting around the rear of it and running straight toward her, blocking her path to help. Julie changed direction to avoid him, “PLEASE SOMEONE,” she screamed, cutting across the snow in an effort to make it into the rest room and lock the door. Off to her left, she saw a truck door being flung open and a driver stepping down, frowning at the commotion; close behind her she heard Benedict’s feet pounding into the snow. “HELP ME!” she yelled at the driver, and she glanced over her shoulder just in time to see Zachary Benedict scoop up a handful of snow.

A snowball hit her hard in the shoulder and she screamed as she ran, “ ‘STOP HIM! He’s—”

Zachary Benedict’s laughing shout a few feet behind her drowned out her words: “CUT IT OUT, Julie,” he yelled at the same time he launched himself at her in a running tackle. “YOU’RE WAKING EVERYONE UP!”

Trying to drag in enough air to scream again, Julie twisted, landing underneath his sprawled body in the snow, the breath knocked out of her, her terrified blue eyes only inches from his enraged ones, his teeth clenched into a fake smile designed to fool the truck driver. Panting, Julie jerked her head aside to scream, just as he smashed a handful of wet snow onto her face. Choking and blinded, she heard his savage whisper as he caught her wrists and yanked them above her head. “I’ll kill him if he comes any closer,” he bit out, tightening his grip on her hands. “Damn you, is that what you want! Does someone have to die for you?”

Julie whimpered, unable to speak, and shook her head, her eyes clenched shut, unable to bear the sight of her captor, unable to endure knowing she’d come within a few feet of freedom, and all for nothing, for this—to end up on her back in the snow with his body crushing her, her hip throbbing from her deliberate fall from the Blazer. She heard his swift intake of breath, the furious urgency. “He’s walking over here. Kiss me and make it look good, or he’s dead!”

Before she could react, his mouth crushed down on hers. Julie’s eyes flew open, her gaze riveting on the truck driver who was cautiously walking toward them, frowning as he tried to peer at their faces. “Goddammit, put your arms around me!”

His mouth was imprisoning hers, the gun in his pocket was jabbing into her stomach, but her wrists were free now. She could struggle, and very possibly, the truck driver with the jovial face beneath a black cap that said PETE on it would see that something was very wrong and come to her rescue.

And he would die.

Benedict had ordered her to put her arms around him and “make it look good.” Like a puppet, Julie moved her leaden wrists from the snow and let them drop limply onto his shoulders, but she could not make herself do more than that.

*  *  *

Zack tasted her stiff lips beneath his; he felt her body, rigid as stone beneath his weight, and he assumed that she was trying to gather her strength for the next moment when she, with the help of three truck drivers, would put an end to his brief freedom and his life. From the corner of his eye, he saw the driver slow down, but he was still coming toward them, and his expression was growing increasingly cautious and skeptical. All this and more raced through Zack’s mind in the space of the three seconds they lay there, pretending —unconvincingly—to kiss.

In a last helpless effort to stop the inevitable from happening to him, Zack dragged his mouth to her ear and whispered a single word he hadn’t let himself use in years: “Please!” Tightening his arms around the rigid woman, he said it again with a groaning urgency he couldn’t suppress. “Please, Julie . . .”

Feeling as if the world had suddenly gone insane, Julie heard the plea wrench from her captor as if it were torn from his chest a moment before his lips seized hers and he said in a tormented whisper, “I didn’t kill anyone, I swear it.” The pleading and desperation she’d heard in his voice were eloquently alive in this kiss, and it accomplished what his threats and anger could not: It made Julie hesitate and waver; it made her believe that what she heard in his voice was truth.

Dazed by the confusing messages racing through her brain, she sacrificed her immediate future for the safety of a truck driver. Driven by the need to spare the man’s life and by something less sensible and completely inexplicable, Julie blinked back tears of futility, slid her hands tentatively over Zachary Benedict’s shoulders, and yielded to his kiss. The moment she did, he sensed her capitulation; a shudder ran through him and his lips gentled. Unaware of the footsteps crunching to a stop in the snow, Julie let him part her lips and of their own volition, her fingers curved around his neck, sliding into the soft, thick hair at his nape. She felt his swift, indrawn breath when she tentatively returned the kiss, and suddenly everything began to change. He was kissing her in earnest now, his hands shifting, sliding over her shoulders, and then burying in her wet hair, lifting her face closer to his hungry, searching mouth.

Somewhere far above her, a man’s bewildered Texas drawl called out, “Lady, you need help or not?”

Julie heard him, and she tried to shake her head, but the mouth that was slanting fiercely over hers now had robbed her of the ability to speak. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew this was only a performance for the driver’s benefit; she knew it as clearly as she knew she had no choice but to participate in the performance. But if that was true, then why couldn’t she at least shake her head or open her eyes.

I guess you don’t,” the Texas drawl said on a lewd chuckle. “How ’bout you, mister? You need any help with what you’re doin’? I could spell you for a bit down there . . .”

Zack’s head lifted just enough to break contact with her mouth, his words husky and soft. “Find your own woman,” he joked with the driver. “This one is mine.” The last word was breathed against Julie’s lips before his mouth touched hers, his arms sweeping around her, his tongue sliding tentatively across her lips, urging them to part, his hips hard and demanding against hers. With a silent moan of surrender, Julie gave herself up to what became the hottest, sexiest, most insistent kiss she’d ever tasted.

Fifty yards away, a truck door opened and a new male voice called, “Hey, Pete, what’s goin’ on over yonder in the snow?”

Hell, man, what does it look like? A couple of grown-ups is playin’ at bein’ kids, having snowball fights and neckin’ in the snow.”

Looks to me like they’re goin’ to be makin’ a kid if they don’t slow down.”

Perhaps it was the new male voice or the sudden realization that her captor was becoming physically aroused that snapped Julie into reality or perhaps it was the slamming of the truck door followed by the roar of an engine as the big semi began to pull away from the rest area. Whatever the cause, she put her hands against his shoulders and exerted pressure, but it took an unnatural effort for her to move, and her shove was puny at best. Panicked by her inexplicable lethargy, Julie shoved harder. “Stop it!” she cried softly. “Stop it. He’s gone!”

Stunned by the sound of tears in her voice, Zack lifted his head, staring at her dewy skin and soft mouth with a hunger that he was finding difficult to control. The exquisite sweetness of her surrender, the way she felt in his arms, and the gentleness of her touch almost made the notion of making love in the snow at dawn seem plausible. Slowly, he looked around at where they were and reluctantly levered himself up off her. He didn’t completely understand why she’d decided not to warn the truck driver, but whatever her reasons, he owed her more than an attempted rape in the snow as repayment. Silently, he held his hand out to her, suppressing a smile when the same woman who’d melted in his arms a moment ago rallied her defenses, pointedly ignored his gesture, and shoved herself up and out of the snow. “I’m soaking wet,” she complained, scrupulously avoiding his gaze and swatting at her hair, “and covered with snow.”

Automatically, Zack reached out to brush the snow off her, but she jumped out of his reach, avoiding his touch as she brushed off her arms and the back of her jeans.

Don’t think you can touch me just because of what happened just now!” she warned him, but Zack was preoccupied with admiration for the results of their kiss: Her huge, dark-lashed eyes were lustrous, her porcelain skin tinted with roses at the high cheekbones. When flustered and a little aroused, as she was now, Julie Mathison was absolutely breathtaking. She was also courageous and very kind, for although he’d not been able to subdue her with threats or cruelty, she’d somehow responded to the desperation in his plea.

The only reason I let you kiss me was because I realized you were right—there’s no need for anyone to get killed just because I’m scared. Now, let’s get going and get this ordeal over with.”

Zack sighed. “I gather from that sour tone of yours that we’re adversaries again, Ms. Mathison?”

Of course we are,” she replied. “I’ll take you wherever you’re going without any more tricks, but let’s get one thing straight: As soon as I get you there, I’ll be free to leave, right?”

Right,” Zack lied.

 

McNaught E-Mondays: Someone to Watch Over Me

cover-someonetowatchoverme

Someone to Watch Over Me
9781501145445
$7.99


Leigh Kendall is relishing her stellar Broadway acting career in her marriage to Logan Manning, scion of an old New York family, when her husband finds the perfect mountain property for their dream house. But while driving upstate on a winter’s night, Leigh is run off the road in the midst of a blinding blizzard. When she awakes in the local hospital, seriously injured, the police inform her that her husband has mysteriously disappeared, and Leigh becomes the focus of their suspicions. The more she discovers about her husband and his business affairs, the less she realizes she knew about Logan Manning. Now, Leigh is heading deeper and deeper into unknown territory—where friends and enemies are impossible to distinguish, and the truth becomes the most terrifying weapon of all in this thrilling tale filled with unrelenting suspense, unforgettable characters, and powerful traces of greed, ambition, and desire.

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Chapters 2 – 4

Bravo! Bravo!” Six curtain calls and the applause was still at a deafening roar. The cast was lined up onstage, taking their bows one at a time, but when Leigh stepped forward, the cheers rose to a wild crescendo. The houselights were up, and Leigh could see Logan in the front row, on his feet, clapping and cheering with enthusiastic pride. She smiled at him, and he gave her a thumbs-up.

When the curtains closed, she walked to the wings where Jason was standing, his face beaming with triumph. “We’re a smash hit, Jason!” she said, giving him a hug.

Let’s take another bow, just you and me this time,” he said.

Jason would have taken curtain calls all night until the last theatergoer left his seat. “Nope,” Leigh said with a grin. “We’ve both taken enough bows.”

He tugged on her hand, a happy thirty-five-year-old child—brilliant, insecure, sensitive, selfish, loyal, temperamental, kind. “C’mon, Leigh,” he cajoled. “Just one more little bow. We deserve it.” The crowd began chanting, “Author! Author!” and his grin widened. “They really want to see me again.”

He was in an ecstatic mood, and Leigh looked at him with a mixture of maternal understanding and awe. Jason Solomon could dazzle her at times with his intellect, hurt her with his insensitivity, and warm her with his gentleness. Those who didn’t know him thought of him as a glamorous eccentric. Those who knew him better generally regarded Jason as a brilliant, irritating egocentric. To Leigh, who knew him, and loved him, he was a complete dichotomy.

Listen to that applause,” he said, tugging on her hand. “Let’s go out there . . .”

Helpless to resist him in this mood, Leigh relented, but stepped back. “Go for it,” she said. “I’ll stay here.”

Instead of releasing her hand, he tightened his grip and dragged her with him. She was off balance when they emerged from the wings, and her surprised resistance was plain to see. The moment of unplanned confusion struck the crowd as wonderful. It made the two biggest names on Broadway seem endearingly human, and the riotous applause was joined with shouts of laughter.

Jason would have tried to coax her into taking yet another bow after that one, but Leigh freed her hand this time and turned away, laughing. “Don’t forget the old adage—” she reminded him over her shoulder, “Always leave them wanting more.”

That’s a cliché,” he retorted indignantly.

But true, nonetheless.”

He hesitated a moment, then followed her backstage, down a hallway crowded with elated cast and busy crew members, who were all trying to congratulate and thank each other. Jason and Leigh stopped several times to participate in the congratulatory hugging.

I told you the twenty-eighth was always my lucky day.”

You were right,” Leigh agreed. Jason insisted on opening all his plays on the twenty-eighth including Blind Spot, even though as a general rule, Broadway plays did not open on Saturdays.

I feel like champagne,” Jason announced as they finally neared Leigh’s dressing room.

So do I, but I need to change clothes and get this makeup off right away. We have a party to attend, and I’d like to get there before midnight.”

A theater critic was congratulating the play’s director, and Jason watched him closely for a moment. “No one will mind if we’re late.”

Jason,” Leigh reminded him with amused patience, “I’m the guest of honor. I should make an effort to get there before the party is over.”

I suppose so,” he agreed, dragging his gaze from the critic. He followed her into her flower-filled dressing room, where the dresser was waiting to help Leigh out of the cheap cotton skirt and blouse she’d been wearing in the last act.

Who are these from?” Jason asked, strolling over to a gigantic basket of huge white orchids. “They must have cost a fortune.”

Leigh glanced at the immense bouquet. “I don’t know.”

There’s a card attached,” Jason said, already reaching for the florist’s envelope. “Shall I read it?”

Could I stop you?” Leigh joked. Jason’s nosiness was legendary. Behind the folding screen, Leigh stepped out of her clothes and into a robe; then she hurried over to her dressing table and sat down in front of the big lighted mirror.

With the open envelope in his hand, Jason caught her gaze in the mirror and gave her a sly smile. “You’ve evidently acquired a serious suitor with big bucks. Come clean, darling, who is he? You know you can trust me with your sordid secrets.”

His last sentence made Leigh laugh. “You’ve never kept a secret in your life, sordid or otherwise,” she told his reflection in the mirror.

True, but tell me who he is, anyway.”

What does the card say?”

Instead of telling her, Jason handed it to her so she could read it herself. “LOVE ME,” it said. Leigh’s brief frown of confusion gave way to a smile as she put down the card and began removing her stage makeup. “It’s from Logan,” she told him.

Why would your husband send you one thousand dollars’ worth of orchids with a card asking you to love him?”

Before replying, Leigh finished spreading cream over her face and began wiping off her makeup with tissues. “When Logan told the florist what to write on the card, the florist obviously misunderstood and forgot to put a comma after the word ‘love.’ It should have read, ‘Love comma Me.’ ”

A bottle of Dom Pérignon was chilling in a bucket, and Jason spotted it. “Why would Logan call himself ‘me’ instead of calling himself ‘Logan’?” he asked as he lifted the bottle from its icy nest and began unpeeling the black foil from the bottle’s neck.

That’s probably my fault,” she admitted with a quick, rueful glance at him. “The Crescent Plaza project has been consuming Logan for months, and I asked him to relax a little. He’s trying to be more playful and spontaneous for my sake.”

Jason gaped at her in laughing derision. “Logan? Spontaneous and playful? You can’t be serious.” He poured champagne into two flutes and put one on the dressing table for her; then he settled himself onto the little sofa at her left, propped his legs on the coffee table, and crossed his feet at the ankles. “In case you haven’t noticed, your husband thinks a five-star restaurant is just a badly lit conference room with forks. He thinks a briefcase is an indispensable fashion accessory, and he depreciates his golf clubs.”

Stop picking on Logan,” she told him. “He’s a brilliant businessman.”

He’s a brilliant bore,” Jason retorted, clearly enjoying the rare opportunity to joke about someone he actually admired and even envied. “If you wanted playfulness and spontaneity in a man, you should have had an affair with me instead of turning to this orchid guy for those traits.”

She flashed him an amused, affectionate look and ignored his reference to the orchids. “You’re gay, Jason.”

Well, yes,” he agreed with a grin. “I suppose that could have been an impediment to our affair.”

How’s Eric?” Leigh asked, deliberately changing the subject. Eric had been Jason’s “significant other” for over six months—which almost set a longevity record where Jason was concerned. “I didn’t see him out front tonight.”

He was there,” Jason said indifferently. He shifted his foot from side to side, studying his shiny black tuxedo loafers. “Eric is becoming a bit of a bore, too, to tell you the truth.”

You are very easily bored,” Leigh said with a knowing look.

You’re right.”

If you want my opinion—”

Which, of course, I don’t,” Jason interrupted.

And which, of course, I’m going to give anyway—If you want my opinion, maybe you should try to find someone who isn’t so much like you that he seems predictable and boring. Try going with someone who depreciates his golf clubs for a change.”

Someone who is so gorgeous that I could overlook his boring traits? As a matter of fact, I do know someone like that!”

He was being so agreeable that Leigh shot him a suspicious look before she tossed a tissue into the wastebasket and began putting on her regular makeup. “You do?”

Yes, indeed,” Jason said with a wicked grin. “He has thick light brown hair streaked blond from the summer sun, beautiful eyes, and a great physique. He’s a little too preppy-looking for my tastes, but he’s thirty-five, and that’s a good age for me. He’s from an old aristocratic New York family that ran out of money long before he was born, so it was up to him to restore the family fortune, which he’s managed to do single-handedly . . .”

Leigh finally realized he was describing Logan, and her shoulders began to shake with laughter. “You’re a lunatic.”

Jason’s short attention span led him from romance to business without a pause between. “What a night!” he sighed, leaning his head back against the sofa. “I was right to change your lines in the last scene of the second act. Did you notice how strongly the audience reacted? One minute everyone was laughing; then they realized what you were actually going to do and they ended up crying. In the space of a few lines, they went from mirth to tears. Now that, my darling, is brilliant writing—and brilliant acting, of course.” He paused for a sip of champagne and, after a moment of thoughtful silence, added, “After I see the matinee tomorrow, I may want to change a little of the dialogue between you and Jane in the third act. I haven’t decided.”

Leigh said nothing as she quickly applied the rest of her makeup, brushed her hair, and then disappeared behind the screen to change into the dress she’d brought to the theater. Outside the dressing room, the noise level had risen dramatically as actors, crew members, and people with enough influence to obtain backstage passes all began leaving the theater by the rear door, laughing and talking as they headed off to celebrate the night’s triumph with friends and families. Ordinarily, Jason and she would be doing the same thing, but today was Leigh’s thirty-fifth birthday, and Logan was determined that it not take second place to the play’s opening night.

She emerged from behind the screen wearing a deceptively simple red silk sheath with tiny beaded straps at the shoulders, matching high heels, and a jeweled Judith Leiber evening bag that dangled from her fingers by a narrow chain.

Red?” Jason said, grinning as he slowly stood up. “I’ve never seen you wear red before.”

Logan specifically asked me to wear something red to the party tonight.”

Really, why?”

Probably because he’s being playful,” Leigh said smugly; then uncertainty replaced her jaunty expression. “Do I look all right in this?”

Jason passed a slow, appraising glance over her gleaming, shoulder-length auburn hair, large aquamarine eyes, and high cheekbones; then he let it drop to her narrow waist, and down her long legs. She was pretty, but certainly not gorgeous, and not even beautiful, he observed. And yet in a roomful of women who were, Leigh Kendall would have drawn notice and attracted attention the moment she moved or spoke. In an attempt to define her powerful presence onstage, critics likened her to a young Katharine Hepburn or a young Ethel Barrymore, but Jason knew they were wrong. Onstage, she had Hepburn’s incomparable glow and she had Barrymore’s legendary depth, but she had something else, too, something infinitely more appealing and uniquely her own—a mesmerizing charisma that was as potent when she was standing in her dressing room, waiting for his opinion about her attire, as when she was onstage. She was the most even tempered, cooperative actress he’d ever known; and yet there was a mystery about her, a barrier, that no one was allowed to cross. She took her work seriously, but she did not take herself seriously, and at times her humility and sense of humor made him feel like a towering, temperamental egotist.

I’m starting to wish I had a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt on,” she joked, reminding him that she was waiting for an opinion.

Okay,” he said, “here it is—the unvarnished truth: Although you aren’t nearly as gorgeous as your husband, you are remarkably attractive for a woman.”

In the unlikely event that that was meant to be a big compliment,” Leigh said, laughing as she opened the closet door and removed her coat, “thanks a lot.”

Jason was truly stunned by her lack of perspective. “Of course it was a compliment, Leigh, but why would you care how you look right now? What matters is that an hour ago, you convinced four hundred people that you are actually a thirty-year-old blind woman who unknowingly holds the key to solving an unspeakable murder. You had every member of that audience squirming in his seat with terror!” Jason threw up his hands in bewildered disgust. “My God, why would a woman who can do all that give a damn how she looks in a cocktail dress?”

Leigh opened her mouth to reply; then she smiled and shook her head. “It’s a girl thing,” she said dryly, glancing at her watch.

I see.” He swept the dressing room door open and stepped aside in an exaggerated gesture of gallantry. “After you,” he said; then he offered her his arm and she took it, but as they started down the back hall, he sobered. “When we get to the party, I’m going to ask Logan if he sent you those orchids.”

I’d rather you didn’t worry yourself or Logan about that tonight,” Leigh said, keeping her tone light. “Even if Logan didn’t send them, it doesn’t really matter. We’ve taken precautions—I have a chauffeur-bodyguard now. Matt and Meredith Farrell lent him to me for six months while they’re away. He’s like a member of their family when they’re home in Chicago. I’m very well protected.”

Despite Leigh’s reassuring words, she couldn’t completely suppress a tremor of anxiety about the orchids. Recently, she’d received some anonymous gifts, all of them expensive and several with blatant sexual overtones, like a black lace garter belt and bra from Neiman Marcus and a sheer, extremely seductive nightgown from Bergdorf Goodman. The small, white cards that accompanied the gifts bore short, cryptic messages like, “Wear this for me” and “I want to see you in this.”

She’d received a phone call at home the day after the first gift was delivered to the theater. “Are you wearing your present, Leigh?” a man’s soft, cajoling voice had asked on the answering machine.

Last week, Leigh had visited Saks, where she’d purchased a robe for Logan and a little enamel pin for herself, which she’d tucked into her coat pocket. She had been about to step off the curb at Fifth and Fifty-first Street with a crowd of other pedestrians when a man’s hand reached forward from behind her, holding a small Saks bag. “You dropped this,” he said politely. Startled, Leigh automatically took the bag and dropped it into the larger one containing Logan’s robe, but when she looked around to thank him, either he’d retreated farther back into the crowd of pedestrians or he was the man she saw walking swiftly down the street, his overcoat turned up to his ears, head bent against the wind.

When she got home with her purchases, Leigh realized her own small bag from Saks was still in her coat pocket, where she’d originally put it. The bag the man had handed her on the street contained a narrow silver band, like a wedding ring. The card said “You’re mine.”

Despite all that, she was certain the orchids in her dressing room were from Logan. He knew they were her favorite flower.

IN THE ALLEY BEHIND THE theater, Leigh’s new chauffeur-bodyguard was standing beside the open door of a limousine. “The show was a big hit, Mrs. Manning, and you were terrific!”

Thank you, Joe.”

Jason settled into the luxurious automobile and nodded with satisfaction. “Everyone should have his very own bodyguard-chauffeur.”

You may not think so a moment from now,” Leigh warned him with a rueful smile as the chauffeur slid behind the steering wheel and put the car into gear. “He drives like a—” The car suddenly rocketed forward, throwing them back against their seats and barging into heavy oncoming traffic.

Maniac!” Jason swore, grabbing for the armrest with one hand and Leigh’s wrist with the other.

Leigh and Logan’s apartment occupied the entire twenty-fourth floor. It had a private elevator lobby that functioned as an exterior “foyer” for their apartment, and Leigh inserted her key into the elevator lock so that the doors would open on her floor.

As soon as the elevator opened, the sounds of a large party in full swing greeted them from beyond her apartment’s front door. “Sounds like a good party,” Jason remarked, helping her out of her coat and handing it to Leigh’s housekeeper, who materialized in the outer foyer to take their coats. “Happy birthday, Mrs. Manning,” Hilda said.

Thank you, Hilda.”

Together, Jason and Leigh stepped into the apartment onto a raised marble foyer that offered a clear view of rooms overflowing with animated, elegantly dressed, beautiful people who were laughing, drinking, and nibbling canapés from trays being passed around by a battalion of waiters in dinner jackets. Jason instantly spotted people he knew and headed down the steps, but Leigh remained where she was, struck suddenly by the beauty of the setting, its portrayal of the success and prosperity that Logan and she had achieved together in their individual careers. Someone spotted her then and started a loud chorus of “Happy Birthday to You!”

Logan arrived at her side with a drink that he placed in her hand and a kiss that he placed on her mouth. “You were fantastic tonight. Happy birthday, darling,” he said. While their guests watched, he reached into his tuxedo jacket pocket and produced a Tiffany box tied with silk ribbon. “Go ahead and open it,” he prodded.

Leigh looked at him uncertainly. “Now?” Normally Logan preferred privacy for sentimental moments, but he was in a boyishly carefree mood tonight.

Now,” he agreed, his eyes smiling into hers. “Absolutely, now.”

It was either a ring or earrings, Leigh guessed, judging from the size and shape of the cream leather box that slid out of the robin’s egg blue outer box. Inside was a spectacular ruby-and-diamond pendant in the shape of a heart. Now she understood why he’d wanted her to wear something red. “It’s magnificent,” she said, incredibly touched that he had spent so much money on her. No matter how much money Logan made, he felt almost guilty about spending it on anything that wasn’t likely to become a profit-making asset or at least a tax deduction.

I’ll help you fasten the chain,” he said, lifting the glittering pendant from its case. “Turn around.” When he finished, he turned her back around so that their guests could see the magnificent pendant, lying just below her throat. The gift earned a round of applause and cries of approval.

Thank you,” Leigh said softly, her eyes shining.

He looped his arm around her shoulders and laughingly said, “I’ll expect a more appropriate thank-you later, when we’re alone. That bauble cost two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

Stunned and amused, Leigh whispered back, “I’m not sure I know how to express a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of gratitude.”

It won’t be easy, but I’ll make some helpful suggestions and recommendations, later tonight.”

I’d appreciate that,” she teased, watching his gaze turn warm and sexy.

He sighed and put his hand under her elbow, guiding her down the marble steps to the living room. “Unfortunately, before we can take care of that very important matter, we have a few hours of obligatory socializing to perform.” On the bottom step, he paused and looked around. “There’s someone here I want you to meet.”

As they wended their way slowly through the noisy, crowded rooms, greeting their guests, Leigh was struck anew by the almost comic contrast between Logan’s friends and business acquaintances and her own. Most of Logan’s friends were members of New York’s oldest and most influential families; they were bankers and philanthropists, judges and senators, all of them with “old” money. Quiet money. They were expensively but conservatively attired and impeccably behaved, with wives who matched them perfectly.

In comparison to them, Leigh’s friends seemed absolutely flamboyant; they were artists, actors, musicians, and writers—people who equated “fitting in” with being overlooked, and that was anathema to them. The two groups didn’t avoid each other, but neither did they mingle. While Leigh’s friend Theta Berenson expounded on the merits of a new art exhibit to her group, the huge yellow feathers on her hat continually brushed against the ear of the investment banker behind her. The banker, who was a friend of Logan’s, irritably brushed the feathers aside while he continued discussing a new strategy for portfolio reallocations with Sheila Winters, a highly respected therapist. Leigh and Logan had met with Sheila a few times to smooth out conflicts in their relationship a couple of years earlier; in the intervening time she had become a dear friend. When she looked over for a moment and saw Leigh, she blew a kiss and waved.

Although Logan and Leigh stopped frequently to chat with their guests, Logan didn’t allow his wife to linger long. He was searching for whoever it was that he wanted her to meet. “There he is, over there,” Logan said finally, and immediately began guiding Leigh toward a tall, dark-haired man who was standing completely by himself at the far end of the living room, looking at an oil painting that was hanging on the wall. His bored expression and aloof stance made it very obvious he wasn’t interested in the artwork, or in the party, for that matter.

Leigh recognized him at once, but his presence in her home was so unlikely that she couldn’t believe her eyes. She stopped short, staring at Logan in horrified disbelief. “That can’t be who I think it is!”

Who do you think it is?”

I think it’s Michael Valente.”

You’re right.” He urged her forward, but Leigh was rooted to the floor, staring at Valente, aghast. “He wants to meet you, Leigh. He’s a big fan of yours.”

Who let him in here?”

I invited him,” Logan explained patiently. “I haven’t mentioned him to you before, because the deal isn’t finalized, but Valente is considering putting up all the venture capital for the entire Crescent Plaza project. I’ve had several meetings with him. He has a genius for putting together highly lucrative business deals.”

And for avoiding prosecution afterward,” Leigh retorted darkly. “Logan, he’s a criminal!”

He’s only been convicted of wrongdoing once,” Logan said, chuckling at her indignant reaction. “Now he’s a respectable billionaire with an incredible track record for turning risky commercial projects, like Crescent Plaza, into wildly successful ones that make a fortune for everyone.”

He’s a felon!”

That was a long time ago, and it was probably a bum rap.

No it wasn’t! I read that he pleaded guilty.”

Instead of being annoyed, Logan gazed at her mutinous expression with amused admiration. “How have you done it?”

Done what?”

Maintained the same rigid, wonderful values you had when we first met?”

“ ‘Rigid’ doesn’t sound like a good thing to me.”

On you,” he said softly, “ ‘rigid’ is a wonderful thing.”

Leigh scarcely heard that as she looked around the room. She spotted Judge Maxwell and Senator Hollenbeck, who were standing against the wall behind the buffet—as far as they could physically get from where Valente was standing. “Logan, there isn’t a man in this house with a reputation to safeguard who is anywhere near Michael Valente. They’ve gotten as far away from him as they can.”

Maxwell is no saint, and Hollenbeck’s closets have barely enough room for all his skeletons,” Logan said emphatically, but as he looked around, he reached the same conclusion that Leigh had reached. “It probably wasn’t wise to invite Valente.”

What made you do it?”

It was an impulse. I phoned him this afternoon to discuss some contractual details for Crescent Plaza, and I mentioned that your play was opening tonight and we were having a party afterward. He mentioned the play, and he said he was a big fan of yours. I knew there wasn’t a seat to be had in the theater tonight, so I compromised and invited him to the party instead. I had so many things going on I didn’t stop to consider that his being here might be awkward, particularly for Sanders and Murray. Will you do me a favor, darling?”

Yes, of course,” Leigh replied, relieved that Logan was at least acknowledging the problem.

I’ve already spoken with Valente tonight. If you don’t mind introducing yourself to him, I’ll go over and soothe Sanders’s and Murray’s offended sensibilities. Valente drinks Glenlivet—no ice, no water. See that he gets a fresh drink, and play hostess for a few minutes. That’s all you have to do.”

And then what? Leave him there by himself? Who can I possibly introduce him to?”

Logan’s dry sense of humor made his eyes gleam as he glanced around the room, looking for possible candidates. “That’s easy. Introduce your friend Claire Straight to him; she’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about her divorce. Jason and Eric already look ready to strangle her.” At that moment, Claire, Jason, and Eric all looked up, and Logan and Leigh waved to them. “Claire—” Logan called, “don’t forget to tell Jason and Eric all about your lawyer and how he sold you out. Ask them if you should sue him for malpractice.”

You are an evil man,” Leigh said with a giggle.

That’s why you love me,” Logan replied. “It’s too bad that Valente isn’t gay,” he joked. “If he was, you could fix him up with Jason. That way, Jason would end up with a lover and a permanent backer for all his plays. Of course, that would make Eric jealous and even more suicidal than usual, so that’s probably not a good idea.” He resumed his thoughtful surveillance of their guests until Theta’s yellow-feathered hat captured his notice. “I suppose we could introduce him to Theta. She’s ugly as sin, but Valente has a fabulous art collection, and she’s an artist—allegedly.”

Her last canvas just sold for one hundred seventy-five thousand dollars. There’s nothing ‘alleged’ about that.”

Leigh, she painted that thing with her elbows and a floor mop.”

She did not.”

Logan was laughing in earnest, and he covered it by lifting his glass to his mouth. “Yes, she did, darling. She told me so.” Suddenly his delighted gaze shifted to an attractive blonde standing with the same group. “The Valente problem is solved. Let’s introduce him to your friend Sybil Haywood. She can tell his fortune—”

Sybil is an astrologer, not a fortune-teller,” Leigh put in firmly.

What’s the difference?”

That depends on whom you ask,” Leigh said, feeling a little put out with Logan’s blanket joking dismissal of her friends, and Sybil in particular. Leigh paused to nod and smile graciously at two couples nearby; then she added, “Sybil has many famous clients, including Nancy Reagan. Regardless of whether you believe in astrology, Sybil is as committed to her field and her clients as you are to yours.”

Logan was instantly contrite. “I’m sure she is. And thank you for not pointing out that my friends and I are as boring as dust, and our conversations are predictable and tedious. Now, do you think Sybil would take Valente off our hands as a favor and spend a little time with him tonight?”

She will if I ask her to,” Leigh said, already deciding that the plan was a viable one.

Satisfied that a compromise had been worked out, Logan gave her shoulders a light hug. “Don’t stay away from me too long. This is your big night, but I’d like to be as much a part of it as I can.”

It was such an openly sentimental thing to say that Leigh instantly forgave him for joking about her friends and even for inviting Valente. As Logan brushed a kiss on her cheek and left, Leigh glanced in Valente’s direction and discovered he was no longer looking at the painting. He had turned and had been staring directly at them. She wondered uneasily how much of their debate he had witnessed and if he’d guessed that he was the cause of it. It wouldn’t have taken much imagination on his part, Leigh decided. She suspected that whenever Valente managed to intrude on respectable social gatherings, most hostesses probably reacted with the same resentment and reluctance that Leigh felt right now.

Hastily smoothing the expression of distaste from her face, Leigh moved sideways through the crush of guests until she reached Sybil Haywood’s group. “Sybil, I need a favor,” she said, drawing the astrologer aside. “I have an awkward social problem—”

You certainly do,” Sybil agreed with a knowing grin. “Virgos can be very difficult to deal with, especially when Pluto and Mars are—”

No, no. It’s not an astrological problem. I need someone I can trust who can deal with a particular man—”

Who happens to be a Virgo—” Sybil stated positively.

Leigh adored Sybil, but at the moment, the astrologer’s fixation on astrology was driving her crazy. “Sybil, please. I have no idea what his astrological sign is. If you’ll take him off my hands and chat with him for a few minutes, you can ask him your—”

Valente is a Virgo,” Sybil interjected patiently.

Leigh blinked at her. “How did you know?”

I know, because when the Senate was investigating him last September Valente was asked to give his full name and date of birth. The Times reported on his testimony, and the reporter noted that Valente was actually testifying on his forty-third birthday. That told me he was a Virgo.”

No, I mean how did you know that Valente is my ‘awkward social problem?”

Oh, that,” Sybil said with a laugh as she passed a slow, meaningful glance over all the other guests within view. “He does stand out in this crowd of politicians, bankers, and business leaders. There’s not another criminal in the entire place for him to socialize with—Actually there are probably a lot of criminals here, but they haven’t been caught and sent to prison like he was.”

You could be right,” Leigh said absently. “I’m going to introduce myself to him. Would you get him a drink and bring it over in a couple of minutes so I can escape gracefully?”

Sybil grinned. “You want me to socialize with a tall, antisocial, semi handsome man who happens to have a murky past, a questionable present, and fifteen billion dollars in assets, probably all from ill-gotten gains? Is that it?”

Pretty much,” Leigh admitted ruefully.

What shall I bring him to drink? Blood?”

Glenlivet,” Leigh said, giving her a quick hug. “No ice, no water, no blood.”

She watched Sybil begin working her way toward one of the bars, and with reluctant resignation, Leigh pasted a smile on her face and wended her way toward Valente. He studied her with detached curiosity as she approached, his expression so uninviting that Leigh doubted he was actually “a fan” of hers or even that he particularly wanted to meet her. By the time she was close enough to hold out her hand to him, she’d noted that he was at least six feet three inches tall with extremely wide, muscular shoulders, thick, black hair, and hard, piercing amber eyes.

Leigh held out her hand. “Mr. Valente?”

Yes.”

I’m Leigh Manning.”

He smiled a little at that—a strange, speculative smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. With his gaze locked onto hers, he took her hand in a clasp that was a little too tight and lasted a little too long. “How do you do, Mrs. Manning—” he said in a rich baritone voice that was more cultured than Leigh had expected it to be.

Leigh exerted enough pressure to indicate she wanted her hand released and he let it go, but his unnerving gaze remained locked on hers as he said, “I enjoyed your performance very much tonight.”

I’m surprised you were there,” Leigh said without thinking. Based on what she knew of him, he didn’t seem the type to enjoy a sensitive theatrical drama with a lot of subtleties.

Perhaps you thought I’d be knocking off a liquor store, instead?”

That was close enough to the truth to make Leigh feel exposed, and she didn’t like it. “I meant that opening night tickets were virtually impossible to get.”

His smile suddenly reached his eyes, warming them a little. “That’s not what you meant, but it’s charming of you to say so.”

Leigh clutched at the first topic of common interest that came to mind. With an over bright smile, she said, “I understand you’re thinking of going into some sort of business venture with my husband.”

You don’t approve, of course,” he said dryly.

Leigh felt as if she were being maneuvered into a series of uncomfortable corners. “Why would you think that?”

I was watching you a few minutes ago when Logan told you I was here, and why I’m here.”

Despite the man’s unsavory background, he was a guest in her home, and Leigh was a little mortified that she’d let her negative feelings about him show so openly. Relying on the old adage that the best defense is a good offense, she said very firmly and politely, “You’re a guest in my home, and I’m an actress, Mr. Valente. If I had any negative feelings about any guest, including you, you would never know it because I would never let them show.”

That’s very reassuring,” he said mildly.

Yes, you were completely mistaken,” Leigh added, pleased with her strategy.

Does that mean you don’t disapprove of my business involvement with your husband?”

I didn’t say that.”

To her shock, he smiled at her evasive reply, a slow, strangely seductive, secretive smile that made his eyes gleam beneath their heavy lids. Others might not have noticed the nuances of it, but Leigh’s career was based on subtleties of expression, and she instantly sensed peril lurking behind that come-hither smile of his. It was the dangerously beguiling smile of a ruthless predator, a predator who wanted her to sense his power, his defiance of the social order, and to be seduced by what he represented. Instead, Leigh was repelled. She jerked her gaze from his, and gestured to the painting on the wall, a painting that Logan wouldn’t have let hang even in a closet under ordinary circumstances. “I noticed that you were admiring this painting earlier.”

Actually, I was admiring the frame, not the painting.”

It’s early seventeenth century. It used to hang in Logan’s grandfather’s study.”

You can’t be referring to that painting,” he said scornfully.

I was referring to the frame. The painting,” she advised him with a twinge of amused vengeance, “was actually done by my husband’s grandmother.”

His gaze shifted sideways, from the painting to her face. “You could have spared me that knowledge.”

He was right, but Sybil’s arrival saved Leigh from having to reply. “Here’s someone I’d like you to meet,” she said a little too eagerly, and introduced the couple. “Sybil is a famous astrologer,” Leigh added, and immediately resented his look of derision.

Undaunted by his reaction, Sybil smiled and held out her right hand, but he couldn’t shake it because she was holding a drink in it. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” she said.

Really, why?”

I’m not sure yet,” Sybil replied, extending her hand farther toward him. “This drink is for you. Scotch. No ice. No water. It’s what you drink.”

Eyeing her with cynical suspicion, he reluctantly took the drink. “Am I supposed to believe you know what I drink because you’re an astrologer?”

Would you believe that if I said it was true?”

No.”

In that case, the truth is that I know what you drink because our hostess told me what you drink and asked me to get this for you.”

His gaze lost some of its chill as it transferred to Leigh. “That was very thoughtful of you.”

Not at all,” Leigh said, glancing over her shoulder, wishing she could leave. Sybil gave her the excuse she needed. “Logan asked me to tell you he needs you to settle some sort of debate about the play tonight.”

In that case, I’d better go and see about it.” She smiled at Sybil, avoided shaking Valente’s hand, and gave him a polite nod instead. “I’m glad to have met you,” she lied. As she walked away, she heard Sybil say, “Let’s find somewhere to sit down, Mr. Valente. You can tell me all about yourself. Or, if you prefer, I can tell you all about yourself.”

IT WAS AFTER 4 A.M. when the last guest departed. Leigh turned out the lights, and they walked across the darkened living room together, Logan’s arm around her waist. “How does it feel to be called ‘the most gifted, multitalented actress to grace a Broadway stage in the last fifty years’?” he asked softly.

Wonderful.” Leigh had been running on excitement until they walked into their bedroom, but at the sight of the big four-poster bed with its fluffy duvet, her body seemed to lose all its strength. She started yawning before she made it into her dressing room, and she was in bed before Logan was out of the shower.

She felt the mattress shift slightly as he got into bed, and all she managed to muster was a smile when he kissed her cheek and jokingly whispered, “Is this how you thank a man for a fabulous ruby-and-diamond pendant?”

Leigh snuggled closer and smiled, already half asleep. “Yes,” she whispered.

He chuckled. “I guess I’ll have to wait until tonight in the mountains for you to properly express your gratitude.”

It seemed like only five minutes later when Leigh awoke to find Logan already dressed and eager to leave for the mountains.

That had been Sunday morning.

This was Tuesday night.

Logan was lost somewhere out in the snow . . . probably waiting for Leigh to do something to rescue him.

cover-someonetowatchoverme

McNaught E-Mondays: Something Wonderful

Something Wonderful was a McNaught book I wanted to throw at the wall a few times because the hero, Jordan, behaves kind of like a jerk for a lot of the book. But, I read this as a teenager and well, I also found that incredibly romantic so take my opinion with a grain of salt. I do remember this being a wonderful story though. The scene where Jordan protects Alexandra and saves her life, in the process, endangering his own, is still ingrained in my mind as the ULTIMATE ROMANTIC SACRIFICE.

Something Wonderful
9781501145544
$7.99

“Judith McNaught not only spins dreams but makes them come true” (RT Book Reviews) in this sensual and moving tale of atempestuous marriage facing its ultimate test. Alexandra Lawrence, an innocent country girl, and Jordan Townsende, the rich and powerful Duke of Hawthorne, have always had a stormy relationship. But when she is swept into the endlessly fascinating world of London society, free-spirited Alexandra becomes ensnared in a tangled web of jealousy, revenge, and overwhelming passion. But behind her husband’s cold, haughty mask, there lives a tender, vital, sensual man…the man Alexandra married. Now, she will fight for his very life and the rapturous bond they alone can share.

Purchase Something Wonderful at any of these sites:

S&S | iBooks | Kindle | Nook | Google Play

…CHAPTER 7

“I WON’T DO IT, I tell you,” Alexandra burst out, her cheeks flushed with angry color. She glowered at the seamstresses who for three days and nights had been measuring, pinning, sighing, and cutting on the rainbow of fabrics which were now strewn about the room in various stages of becoming day dresses, riding habits, walking costumes, and dressing gowns. She felt like a stuffed mannikin who was permitted no feelings and no rest, whose only purpose was to stand still and be pinned, prodded, and poked, while the duchess looked on, criticizing Alexandra’s every mannerism and movement.
For three entire days she had repeatedly asked to speak with her future husband, but the duke had been “otherwise occupied” or so Ramsey, the stony-faced butler, had continually informed her. Occasionally she had glimpsed him in the library talking with gentlemen until late in the afternoon. She and Mary Ellen were served their meals in Alexandra’s room, while he apparently preferred the more interesting company of his grandmother. “Otherwise occupied,” she had now concluded, obviously meant that he didn’t wish to be bothered with her.
Something Wonderful by Judith McNaughtAfter three days of this, Alexandra was tense, irritable, and—much to her horror—very frightened. Her mother and Uncle Monty were as good as lost to her. Even though they were supposedly staying at an inn a few miles away, they were not permitted to call at Rosemeade. Life yawned before her, a lonely, gaping hole where she would be denied the companionship of her family and Mary Ellen and even the old servants who had been her friends since babyhood.
“This is a complete farce!” Alexandra said to Mary Ellen, stamping her foot in frustrated outrage and glaring at the seamstress who had just finished pinning the hem of the lemon-yellow muslin gown Alexandra was wearing.
“Stand still, young lady, and cease your theatrics,” her grace snapped frigidly, walking into the room.
For three days the duchess hadn’t spoken a single personal word to her, except to criticize, lecture, instruct, or command. “Theatrics—” Alexandra burst out, as rage swept through her, hot and satisfying. “If you think that was a theatric, wait until you hear the rest of what I have to say!” The duchess turned as if she intended to leave and, for Alexandra, that was the last straw. “I suggest you wait a moment and let me finish, ma’am.”
The duchess turned then, lifting her aristocratic brows, waiting.
The sheer arrogance of her pose made Alexandra so angry that her voice shook. “Kindly tell your invisible grandson that the wedding is off, or, if he chooses to materialize, you may send him to me and I’ll tell him so.” Afraid she would burst into tears, which she knew the old woman would only mock, she ran from the room, along the balcony and down the staircase.
“What,” asked the butler as he opened the front door for her, “shall I tell his grace—should he inquire as to your whereabouts?”
Pausing in her headlong flight, Alexandra looked Ramsey right in the eye and mimicked, “Tell him I’m ‘otherwise occupied.’ ”
An hour later, as she wandered through the rose garden, her hysteria had cooled to a steely determination. Irritably, she bent and plucked a lovely pink rose and raised it to her nose, inhaling its scent, then she began absently snapping the petals off, one by one, her thoughts in a turmoil. Pink rose petals floated down about her skirts, joining those of the red roses, the white, and the yellow which she had also unconsciously shredded.
“Based on the message you left for me with Ramsey,” said a deep, unperturbed voice behind her, “I gather you’re displeased about something?”
Alexandra whirled in surprise, her relief at finally being able to speak to him eclipsed by the growing panic she’d been trying unsuccessfully to stifle for days. “I’m displeased about everything.”
His amused glance slid to the rose petals strewn about her skirts. “Including the roses, evidently,” he observed, feeling slightly guilty for ignoring her these last several days.
Alexandra followed the direction of his gaze, flushed with embarrassment, and said with a mixture of distress and frustration, “The roses are beautiful, but—”
“—But you were bored with the way they looked when they had their petals on, is that it?”
Realizing that she was being drawn into a discussion about flowers when her entire life was in chaos, Alexandra drew herself up and said with quiet, implacable firmness, “Your grace, I am not going to marry you.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and regarded her with mild curiosity. “Really? Why not?”
Trying to think of the best way to explain, Alexandra ran a shaky hand through her dark curls and Jordan’s gaze lifted, watching the unconscious grace of her gesture— really studying her for the first time. Sunlight glinted in her hair, gilding it with a golden sheen, and turned her magnificent eyes a luminous, turquoise green. The yellow of her gown flattered her creamy complexion and the peach tint glowing at her cheeks.
“Would you please,” Alexandra said in a long-suffering voice, “stop looking at me in that peculiar, appraising way, as if you’re trying to dissect my features and discover all my flaws?”
“Was I doing that?” Jordan asked absently, noting for the first time her high cheekbones and the soft fullness of her lips. As he gazed at that arresting, delicately carved face with its winged brows and long, sooty eyelashes, he couldn’t imagine how he’d ever mistaken her for a lad.
“You’re playing Pygmalion with my life, and I don’t like it.”
“I’m what?” Jordan demanded, his attention abruptly diverted from her fascinating face.
“In mythology, Pygmalion was—”
“I’m familiar with the myth, I’m merely surprised that a female would be familiar with the classics.”
“You must have a very limited experience with my sex,” Alexandra said, surprised. “My grandfather said most women are every bit as intelligent as men.”
She saw his eyes take on the sudden gleam of suppressed laughter and assumed, mistakenly, that he was amused by her assessment of female intelligence rather than her remark about his inexperience with women. “Please stop treating me as if I haven’t a wit in my head! Everyone in your house does that—even your servants are haughty and behave oddly to me.”
“I’ll instruct the butler to put wool in his ears and pretend to be deaf,” Jordan teased, “and I’ll order the footmen to wear blinders. Will that make you feel more at home?”
“Will you kindly take me seriously!”
Jordan sobered instantly at her imperious tone. “I’m going to marry you,” he said coolly. “That’s serious enough.”
Now that she had decided not to marry him, and had told him so, the sharp pain of her decision was lessened a little by the discovery that she no longer felt intimidated and uncomfortable with him. “Do you realize,” she said with a winsome smile as she tilted her head to the side, “that you become positively grim when you say the word ‘marry’?” When he said nothing, Alexandra laid her hand on his sleeve, as if he was her friend, and gazed into his unfathomable grey eyes, seeing the cynicism lurking in their depths. “I don’t mean to pry, your grace, but are you happy with life—with your life, I mean?”
He looked irritated by her question, but he answered it. “Not particularly.”
“There you see! We would never suit. You’re disenchanted with life, but I’m not.” The quiet inner joy, the courage and indomitable spirit Jordan had sensed in her the night they met, was in her voice now as she lifted her face to the blue sky, her entire being radiant with optimism, innocence, and hope. “I love life, even when bad things happen to me. I can’t stop loving it.”
Transfixed, Jordan stared at her as she stood against a backdrop of vibrant roses and distant green hills—a pagan maiden addressing the heavens in a sweet, soft voice: “Every season of the year comes with a promise that something wonderful is going to happen to me someday. I’ve had that feeling ever since my grandfather died. It’s as if he’s telling me to wait for it. In winter, the promise comes with the smell of snow in the air. In summer, I hear it in the boom of thunder and the lightning that streaks across the sky in blue flashes. Most of all, I feel it now, in springtime, when everything is green and black—”
Her voice trailed off and Jordan repeated blankly, “Black?”
“Yes, black—you know, like tree trunks when they’re wet, and freshly tilled fields that smell like—” She inhaled, trying to recall the exact scent.
“Dirt,” Jordan provided unromantically.
She dropped her gaze from the heavens and looked at him. “You think me foolish,” she sighed. Stiffening her spine and ignoring the sharp stab of longing she felt for him, she said with calm dignity, “We cannot possibly wed.”
Jordan’s dark eyebrows drew together over incredulous grey eyes. “You’ve decided that, merely because I don’t happen to think wet dirt smells like perfume?”
“You haven’t understood a word I’ve said,” Alexandra said desperately. “The fact of the matter is that if I marry you, you’ll make me as unhappy as you are—and if you make me unhappy, I’ll undoubtedly retaliate by making you unhappy, and in a few years, we’ll both be as sour as your grandmother. Don’t you dare laugh,” she warned when his lips twitched.
Taking her arm, Jordan walked with her along the flagstone path that separated the rose beds and led to an arbor filled with trees decked out in spring blossoms. “You’ve failed to take one vital fact into consideration: From the moment I carried you into the inn, nothing in your life could ever be the same again. Even if your mother was only bluffing about putting us both through a public trial, your reputation is already destroyed.” Stopping at the entrance to the arbor, he leaned against the trunk of an oak tree and said in a detached, impersonal voice, “I’m afraid you have no choice except to do me the honor of becoming my wife.”
Alexandra chuckled, diverted by his ever-present, courteous formality, even now when she was bluntly refusing his hand in marriage. “Marrying an ordinary girl from Morsham is hardly an ‘honor’ for a duke,” she reminded him with cheerful, artless candor, “and despite what you so glibly said when we last parted, you are not my ‘servant.’ Why do you say those things to me?”
He grinned at her infectious merriment. “Habit,” he admitted.
She tipped her head to the side, an enchanting, spirited girl with the wit and courage to spar with him. “Do you never say what you really mean?”
“Rarely.”
Alex nodded sagely. “Apparently, speaking one’s mind is a privilege reserved for what your grandmother disdainfully refers to as ‘the lower classes.’ Why do you always seem to be on the verge of laughing at me?”
“For some unfathomable reason,” he replied in an amused drawl, “I like you.”
“That’s nice, but it isn’t enough to base a marriage on,” Alexandra persisted, returning to her original concern. “There are other, essential things like—” Her voice trailed off in horrified silence. Like love, she thought. Love was the only essential.
“Like what?”
Unable to choke out the word, Alexandra hastily looked away and shrugged noncommittally.
Love, Jordan silently filled in with a resigned sigh, longing to return to his interrupted meeting with his grandmother’s bailiff. Alexandra wanted love and romance. He’d forgotten that even innocent, sheltered girls of her tender years would undoubtedly expect a little ardor from their affianced husbands. Adamantly unwilling to stand out here like a besotted fool and try to persuade her to marry him with tender words he didn’t mean, he decided a kiss would be the quickest, most effective, and most expedient way to fulfill his duty and neutralize her misgivings, so that he could resume his meeting.
Alex jumped nervously when his hand suddenly lifted and cupped her cheek, forcing her to give up her embarrassed study of the entrance to the arbor.
“Look at me,” he said in a low, velvety, unfamiliar voice that sent tingles of apprehensive excitement darting up her spine.
Alexandra dragged her eyes to his tanned face. Although no one had ever attempted to seduce or kiss her before, she took one look at the slumberous expression in his heavy-lidded eyes and knew something was in the wind. Instantly wary, she demanded without preamble: “What are you thinking?”
His fingers splayed sensuously across her cheek, and he smiled—a slow, lazy smile that made her heart leap into her throat. “I’m thinking about kissing you.”
Alexandra’s fevered imagination promptly ran away with itself as she recalled the novels she’d read. When kissed by the man they secretly loved, the heroines invariably swooned, or abandoned their virtue, or blurted out professions of undying love. Terrified that she would make just such a cake of herself, Alexandra gave her head an emphatic shake. “No, really,” she croaked. “I—I don’t think you should. Not just now. It’s very nice of you to offer, but not just now. Perhaps another time when I—”
Ignoring her protests, and struggling to hide his amusement, Jordan put his fingertips beneath her chin and tilted her face up for his kiss.
He closed his eyes. Alexandra’s opened wide. He lowered his head. She braced herself to be overcome with ardor. He touched his lips lightly to hers. And then it was over.
Jordan opened his eyes and looked at her to assess her reaction. It was not the naively rapturous one he expected to see. Alexandra’s eyes were wide with bewilderment and— yes—disappointment!
Relieved that she hadn’t made a fool of herself like the heroines of the novels, Alexandra wrinkled her small nose. “Is that all there is to kissing?” she asked the nobleman whose fiery kisses purportedly made maidens despise their virginity and married women forget their vows.
For a moment, Jordan didn’t move; he studied her with heavy-lidded, speculative grey eyes. Suddenly Alexandra saw something exciting and alarming kindle in those silvery eyes. “No,” he murmured, “there’s more,” and his hands encircled her arms, drawing her so close that her breasts almost touched his chest.
His conscience, which Jordan had assumed was long dead, chose that unlikely moment to suddenly assert itself after years of silence. You are seducing a child, Hawthorne! it warned in acid disgust. Jordan hesitated, more from surprise at the unexpected presence of that long-forgotten inner voice than from guilt at his actions. You are deliberately seducing a gullible child into doing your bidding because you don’t want to bother taking the time to reason with her.
“What are you thinking now?” Alexandra asked warily.
Several evasions occurred to him, but recalling that she’d scorned polite platitudes, he decided to be truthful. “I’m thinking that I’m committing the unforgivable act of seducing a child.”
Alexandra, who was relieved rather than disappointed that his kiss had not affected her, felt laughter bubble up inside of her. “Seducing me?” she repeated with a merry chuckle and shook her head, sending her curly hair into fetching disarray. “Oh, no, you may put your mind at ease on that score. I think I must be made of sterner stuff than most females who swoon from a kiss and abandon their virtue. I,” she finished candidly, “was not at all affected by our kiss. Not,” she added charitably, “that I thought it was gruesome, for it wasn’t, I assure you. It was . . . quite nice.”
“Thank you,” Jordan said, straight-faced. “You’re very kind.” Tucking her hand firmly into the crook of his arm, he turned and led her a few steps into the arbor.
“Where are we going?” she inquired conversationally.
“Out of sight of the house,” he replied dryly, stopping beneath the branches of an apple tree covered with blossoms. “Chaste pecks are permissible between an engaged couple in the rose garden; however, more passionate kissing must be done with more discretion, in the arbor.”
Alexandra, who was misled by the matter-of-fact tone of this lecture, failed to instantly absorb the import of his words. “It’s amazing!” she said, laughing up at him. “There are rules for absolutely everything amongst the nobility. Are there books with all this written down?” But before he could answer, she gasped, “K-kiss me passionately? Why?”
Jordan glanced toward the entrance of the arbor to make certain they were private, then he turned the full seductive force of his silver gaze and lazy smile on the girl standing before him. “It’s my vanity,” he teased in a low voice. “It chafes at the idea that you nearly dozed off in the middle of my last kiss. Now, let’s see if I can wake you up.”
For the second time in minutes, Jordan’s heretofore silent conscience was outraged. It roared at him: You bastard, what do you think you’re doing?
But this time, Jason didn’t hesitate for even a moment. He already knew exactly what he was doing. “Now then,” he said, smiling reassuringly into her enormous blue-green eyes as he matched his actions to his words, “a kiss is a thing to be shared. I’ll put my hands on your arms, thus, and draw you close.”
Puzzled by so much fuss over a kiss, Alexandra glanced down at the strong, long fingers gently imprisoning her upper arms, then at the front of his fine white shirt, before she finally raised her embarrassed gaze to his. “Where do my hands go?”
Jordan squelched his shout of laughter, as well as the suggestive reply that automatically sprang to his lips. “Where would you like to put them?” he asked instead.
“In my pockets?” Alexandra suggested hopefully.
Jordan, who suddenly felt more in the mood for a hearty laugh than a seduction, was nevertheless determined to continue. “The point I was trying to make,” he explained mildly, “is that it’s perfectly all right for you to touch me.”
I don’t want to, she thought frantically.
You will, he silently promised with an inner smile, correctly interpreting her mutinous expression. Tipping her chin up, he gazed into those wide, luminous eyes of hers, and tenderness began to unfold within him—a sensation that had been as foreign to him as the voice of his conscience until he met this unspoiled, unpredictable, artless child-woman. He felt, for the moment, as if he was gazing into the eyes of an angel, and he touched her smooth cheek with unconscious reverence. “Have you any idea,” he murmured softly, “how enchanting you are—and how rare?”
The words he spoke, combined with the touch of his fingertips against her cheek, and the deep, compelling timbre of his voice, had the seductive impact Alexandra had dreaded his kiss would have. She felt as if she were beginning to melt and float inside. She couldn’t pull her gaze from his hypnotic grey eyes; she didn’t want to try. Without realizing what she was doing, she raised her shaking fingertips to his hard jaw, touching his cheek as he was touching hers. “I think,” she whispered achingly, “that you are beautiful.”
“Alexandra—” The softly spoken word contained a poignant tenderness she hadn’t heard in his voice before, and it made her want to tell him everything in her heart. Unaware of the stimulating effect of her caressing fingers and candid turquoise eyes, she continued in the same aching voice, “I think you are as beautiful as Michelangelo’s David—”
“Don’t—” he whispered achingly, and his lips took hers in a kiss that was nothing at all like the first one. His mouth slanted over hers with fierce tenderness, while his hand curved around her nape, his fingers stroking her sensitive skin, and as his other arm encircled her waist, moving her tightly to him. Lost in a sea of pure sensation as his lips tasted and courted hers, Alexandra slid her hands up his hard chest and wrapped her arms around his neck, clinging to him for support, innocently and unconsciously molding her body to his length. The moment she did, the seducer became the seduced: Desire exploded in Jordan’s body, and the girl in his arms became an enticing woman. Automatically, he deepened the kiss, his mouth moving with hungry, persuasive insistence on hers, while Alexandra clung tighter to him, sliding her fingers into the crisp hair above his collar, her entire body racked with jolt after jolt of wild pleasure. He kissed her long and lingeringly, then he touched his tongue to her trembling lips, coaxing them to part, insisting, and when they did, his tongue slid between them, filling her mouth. His hand shifted from her back to her midriff, sliding upward toward her breasts.
Whether from fear or desire, Alexandra moaned softly, and the sound somehow penetrated his aroused senses, dousing his desire and dragging him reluctantly back to reality.
Jordan dropped his hands to her narrow waist and raised his head, staring down into her intoxicating young face, unable to believe the passion she had unexpectedly evoked in him.
Dizzy with love and desire, Alexandra felt the heavy thudding of his heart beneath her hand. Gazing up at the firm sensual mouth which had gently, and then fiercely, explored hers, she raised her eyes to his smoldering grey ones.
And she knew.
Something Wonderful had happened. This magnificent, handsome, complicated, sophisticated man was her promised gift from fate. He was hers to love.
Bravely ignoring the painful memories of her equally complicated, handsome, sophisticated father’s treatment, Alexandra accepted fate’s gift with all the humble gratitude in her bursting heart. Unaware that sanity had returned to Jordan and the expression in his eyes had changed from desire to irritation, Alexandra raised her shining eyes to his. Quietly, without emphasis or shame, she softly said, “I love you.”
Jordan had been expecting something like that the moment she raised her eyes to his. “Thank you,” he said, trying to pass her statement off as a casual compliment rather than an avowal he did not want to hear. Mentally he shook his head at how incredibly, disarmingly romantic she was. And how naive. What she felt, he knew, was desire. Nothing more. There was no such thing as love—there were only varying degrees of desire, which romantic women and foolish men called “love.”
He knew he ought to end her infatuation with him right now by telling her bluntly that his own feelings did not match hers and, moreover, that he did not want her to feel as she did about him. That was what he wanted to do. However, his conscience, which was suddenly making a damned nuisance of itself after a silence of decades, would not let him wound her. Even he, callous and cynical and impatient with this nonsense as he now felt, was not callous enough, or cynical enough to deliberately hurt a child who was looking at him with the adoration of a puppy.
So much did she remind him of a puppy that he reacted automatically and, reaching out, he rumpled her thick, silky hair. With smiling gravity, he said, “You will spoil me with so much flattery,” then he glanced toward the house, impatient to return to his work. “I have to finish going over my grandmother’s accounts this afternoon and tonight,” he said abruptly. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Alexandra nodded and watched him walk out of the arbor. In the morning, she would be his wife. He had not reacted at all as she’d hoped he would, when she told him she loved him, but it didn’t matter. Not then. Then she had enough love bursting into bloom in her heart to sustain her.
“Alex?” Mary Ellen rushed into the arbor, her face alive with eager curiosity. “I watched from the windows. You were in here ever so long. Did he kiss you?”
Alexandra sank down on a white, ornamental iron bench beneath a plum tree and chuckled at her friend’s avid expression. “Yes.”
Mary Ellen eagerly sat down beside her. “And did you tell him you love him?”
“Yes.”
“What did he do?” she demanded gleefully. “What did he say?”
Alexandra shot her a rueful smile. “He said, ‘thank you.’ ”
*  *  *
Firelight danced gaily in the hearth, banishing the chill of a spring night and casting shadows that cavorted and bobbed on the walls like sprites at an autumn festival. Propped against a pile of pillows in her huge bed, Alexandra watched the entertainment, her expression pensive. Tomorrow was her wedding day.
Drawing her knees up, she wrapped her arms around her legs, staring into the fire. Despite her thrilling discovery that she had fallen in love with her husband-to-be, she was not foolish enough to think she understood him, nor was she naive enough to believe she knew how to make him happy.
She was certain of only two things: She wanted to make him happy and somehow, some way, she would discover the means to do it. The awesome weight of that responsibility was heavy on her mind, and she wished devoutly she had a better notion of what being the wife of a nobleman entailed.
Her knowledge of marriage was limited and not very helpful. Her own father had been like a charming, elegant, eagerly awaited stranger who, when he deigned to visit them, was greeted with eager adoration by his wife and daughter.
Propping her chin on her knees, Alexandra remembered with a pang of pain how she and her mother had fussed over him for as long as he remained, hanging on to his words and following him around, as eager to please him as if he were a god and they his willing worshipers. Humiliation shot through her when she imagined how dull and provincial and gullible she and her mother must have seemed to him. How he must have laughed at their eager adoration!
With brave determination, Alexandra shifted her thoughts to her own marriage. She was quite certain the duke wouldn’t like being treated by his wife with the extreme deference her own mother had shown her father. His grace seemed to enjoy it when she spoke her mind, even if she said something outrageous. Sometimes, she could make him laugh out loud. But how to go on for the next forty years with him?
The only other marriages she had witnessed firsthand were peasant marriages, and in those marriages the wife cooked and cleaned and sewed for her husband. The idea of doing those things for the duke filled her with quiet longing, even while she knew the notion was sheer foolish sentimentality. This house was crawling with servants who anticipated the occupants’ needs in advance and took steps to make certain their every wish was carried out almost before they thought of it.
With an audible sigh, Alexandra accepted the fact that the Duke of Hawthorne didn’t need her to look after his needs in the way ordinary country-bred wives looked after their husbands’. Even so, she couldn’t help conjuring up a wonderful vision of herself, seated across from him in a chair before the fire, her fingers nimbly adding stitches to one of his snowy white shirts. Wistfully, she imagined the look of gratitude and pleasure on his ruggedly handsome face as he watched her mend his shirt. How grateful he would be . . .
A smothered laugh escaped her as she reconsidered her utter lack of talent with a needle. If she didn’t prick her finger and bleed all over his shirt, she would surely sew the armhole closed or something equally disastrous. The picture of cozy marital bliss faded and her expression became determined.
Every instinct she possessed told her that the duke was a highly complex man, and she hated her youthful inexperience. On the other hand, she was not a featherbrain, despite the fact that his grace seemed to regard her as an amusing child. When necessary, she could draw on a wealth of common sense and practicality. Hadn’t she managed to hold her household together from the time she was fourteen?
Now she had a new challenge ahead of her. She needed to make herself fit to be the Duke of Hawthorne’s wife. His grandmother had already, in the last several days, made a hundred critical remarks about Alexandra’s manners and mannerisms, and although Alex had bridled over what seemed to her be an excessive emphasis on superficial matters of conduct and convention, she secretly intended to learn everything she needed to know. She would make certain her husband never had reason to be ashamed of her.
My husband, Alexandra thought as she snuggled down into the pillows. That huge, handsome, elegant aristocrat was going to be her husband . . .

…CHAPTER 8

Lounging in a big wingback chair the next morning, Anthony studied his cousin with a combination of admiration and disbelief. “Hawk,” he chuckled, “I swear to God, what everyone says about you is true—you don’t have a nerve in your entire body. This is your wedding day, and I’m more nervous about it than you are.”
Partially dressed in a frilled white shirt, black trousers, and a silver-brocade waistcoat, Jordan was simultaneously carrying on a last-minute meeting with his grandmother’s estate manager and pacing slowly back and forth across his bedchamber, glancing over a report on one of his business ventures. One step behind him, his beleaguered valet followed doggedly in his wake, smoothing a tiny wrinkle from his finely tailored shirt and brushing microscopic specks of lint from the legs of his trousers.
“Hold still, Jordan,” Tony said, laughing with sympathy for the valet. “Poor Mathison is going to drop dead in his tracks from exhaustion.”
“Hmm?” Jordan paused to glance inquiringly at Tony, and the stalwart valet seized his chance, snatched up a splendidly tailored black jacket, and held it up so Jordan had little choice but to slide his arms into the sleeves.
“Do you mind telling me how you can be so damned nonchalant about your own marriage? You are aware that you’re getting married in fifteen minutes, aren’t you?”
Dismissing the estate manager with a nod, Jordan laid aside the report he was reading, and finally shrugged into the jacket Mathison was still holding out to him, then he turned to the mirror and ran a hand over his jaw to verify the closeness of his shave. “I don’t think of it as getting married,” he said dryly. “I think of it as adopting a child.”
Anthony smiled at the joke and Jordan continued more seriously, “Alexandra will make no demands on my life, nor will my marriage to her require any real changes. After stopping in London to see Elise, I’ll take Alexandra down to Portsmouth and we’ll sail along the coast so that I can see how the new passenger ship we’ve designed handles, then I’ll drop her off at my house in Devon. She’ll like Devon. The house there isn’t so large as to completely overwhelm her. Naturally, I’ll return there to see her from time to time.”
“Naturally,” Anthony said wryly.
Without bothering to answer that, Jordan picked up the report he’d been reading and continued scanning it.
“Your beauteous ballerina is not going to like this, Hawk,” Tony put in after a few minutes.
“She’ll be reasonable,” Jordan said absently.
“So!” the duchess said tautly, sweeping into the room wearing an elegant brown satin gown trimmed in cream lace. “You truly mean to go through with this mockery of a marriage. You actually intend to try to pass that countrified chit off on Society as a young lady of breeding and culture.”
“On the contrary,” Jordan said blandly. “I mean to install her in Devon and leave the last part of that to you. There’s no rush, however. Take a year or two to teach her what she needs to know in order to take her place as my duchess.”
“I couldn’t accomplish that feat in a decade,” his grandmother snapped.
Until then, he had tolerated her objections without rancor, but that remark seemed to push him too far, and his voice took on the cutting edge that intimidated servants and socialites alike. “How difficult can it be to teach an intelligent girl to act like a vapid, vain henwit!”
The indomitable old woman maintained her stony dignity, but she studied her grandson’s steely features with something akin to surprise. “That is how you see females of your own class, then? Vapid and vain?”
“No,” Jordan said curtly. “That is how I see them when they are Alexandra’s age. Later, most of them become much less appealing.”
Like your mother, she thought.
Like my mother, he thought.
“That is not true of all females.”
“No,” Jordan agreed without conviction or interest. “Possibly not.”

 

McNaught E-Mondays: Almost Heaven

Here is an excerpt from Almost Heaven, another classic Judith McNaught book. This one has somewhat of a rough hero who isn’t always heroic but he is still classic Judith McNaught.

Almost Heaven
9781501145698
$7.99

Elizabeth Cameron, the Countess of Havenhurst, possesses a rare gentleness and fierce courage to match her exquisite beauty. But her reputation is shattered when she is discovered in the arms of Ian Thornton, a notorious gambler and social outcast. A dangerously handsome man of secret wealth and mysterious lineage, Ian’s interest in Elizabeth may not be all that it seems. His voyage to her heart is fraught with intrigue, scandal, and a venomous revenge.  As a twisting path of secrets takes them from London’s drawing rooms to the awe-inspiring Scottish Highlands, Elizabeth must learn the truth: is Ian merely aruthless fortune hunter at heart? “Well-developed main characters with a compelling mutual attraction give strength and charm to this romance set in nineteenth-century Great Britain” (Publishers Weekly).

Purchase Almost Heaven at any of these sites:

S&S | iBooks | Kindle | Nook | Google Play

…CHAPTER 13

Drawing a long breath, Elizabeth clasped her shaking hands behind her back and decided cover-almostheavento try for a truce. “Mr. Thornton,” she began quietly, “must there be enmity between us? I realize my coming here is an . . . an inconvenience, but it was your fault . . . your mistake,” she corrected cautiously, “that brought us here. And you must surely see that we have been even more inconvenienced than you.” Encouraged by his lack of argument, she continued. “Therefore, the obvious solution is that we should both try to make the best of things.”
“The obvious solution,” he countered, “is that I should apologize for ‘inconveniencing’ you, and then you should leave as soon as I can get you to a carriage or a wagon.”
“I can’t!” she cried, fighting to recover her calm.
“Why the hell not?”
“Because—well—my uncle is a harsh man who won’t like having his instructions countermanded. I was supposed to stay a full sennight.”
“I’ll write him a letter and explain.”
“No!” Elizabeth burst out, imagining her uncle’s reaction if the third man also sent her packing straightaway. He was no fool. He’d suspect. “He’ll blame me, you see.”
Despite Ian’s resolution not to give a damn what her problems were, he was a little unnerved by her visible fright and by her description of her uncle as “harsh.” Based on her behavior two years ago, he had no doubt Elizabeth Cameron had done much to earn a well-deserved beating from her unfortunate guardian. Even so, Ian had no wish to be the cause of the old man laying a strap to that smooth white skin of hers. What had happened between them was folly on his part, but it had been over long ago. He was about to wed a beautiful, sensual woman who wanted him and who suited him perfectly. Why should he treat Elizabeth as if he harbored any feelings for her, including anger?
Elizabeth sensed that he was wavering a little, and she pressed home her advantage, using calm reason: “Surely nothing that happened between us should make us behave badly to each other now. I mean, when you think on it, it was nothing to us but a harmless weekend flirtation, wasn’t it?”
“Obviously.”
“Neither of us was hurt, were we?”
“No.”
“Well then, there’s no reason why we should not be cordial to each other now, is there?” she demanded with a bright, beguiling smile. “Good heavens, if every flirtation ended in enmity, no one in the ton would be speaking to anyone else!”
She had neatly managed to put him in the position of either agreeing with her or else, by disagreeing, admitting that she had been something more to him than a flirtation, and Ian realized it. He’d guessed where her calm arguments were leading, but even so, he was reluctantly impressed with how skillfully she was maneuvering him into having to agree with her. “Flirtations,” he reminded her smoothly, “don’t normally end in duels.”
“I know, and I am sorry my brother shot you.”
Ian was simply not proof against the appeal in those huge green eyes of hers. “Forget it,” he said with an irritated sigh, capitulating to all she was asking. “Stay the seven days.”
Suppressing the urge to twirl around with relief, she smiled into his eyes. “Then could we have a truce for the time I’m here?”
“That depends.”
“On what?”
His brows lifted in mocking challenge. “On whether or not you can make a decent breakfast.”
“Let’s go in the house and see what we have.”
With Ian standing beside her Elizabeth surveyed the eggs and cheese and bread, and then the stove. “I shall fix something right up,” she promised with a smile that concealed her uncertainty.
“Are you sure you’re up to the challenge?” Ian asked, but she seemed so eager, and her smile was so disarming, that he almost believed she knew how to cook.
“I shall prevail, you’ll see,” she told him brightly, reaching for a wide cloth and tying it around her narrow waist.
Her glance was so jaunty that Ian turned around to keep himself from grinning at her. She was obviously determined to attack the project with vigor and determination, and he was equally determined not to discourage her efforts. “You do that,” he said, and he left her alone at the stove.
An hour later, her brow damp with perspiration, Elizabeth grabbed the skillet, burned her hand, and yelped as she snatched a cloth to use on the handle. She arranged the bacon on a platter and then debated what to do with the ten inch biscuit that had actually been four small biscuits when she’d placed the pan in the oven. Deciding not to break it into irregular chunks, she placed the entire biscuit neatly in the center of the bacon and carried the platter over to the table, where Ian had just seated himself. Returning to the stove, she tried to dig the eggs out of the skillet, but they wouldn’t come loose, so she brought the skillet and spatula to the table. “I—I thought you might like to serve,” she offered formally, to hide her growing trepidation over the things she had prepared.
“Certainly,” Ian replied, accepting the honor with the same grave formality with which she’d offered it; then he looked expectantly at the skillet. “What have we here?’ he inquired sociably.
Scrupulously keeping her gaze lowered, Elizabeth sat down across from him. “Eggs,” she answered, making an elaborate production of opening her napkin and placing it on her lap. “I’m afraid the yolks broke.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
When he picked up the spatula Elizabeth pinned a bright, optimistic smile on her face and watched as he first tried to lift, and then began trying to pry the stuck eggs from the skillet. “They’re stuck,” she explained needlessly.
“No, they’re bonded,” he corrected, but at least he didn’t sound angry. After another few moments he finally managed to pry a strip loose, and he placed it on her plate. A few moments more and he was able to gouge another piece loose, which he placed on his own plate.
In keeping with the agreed-upon truce they both began observing all the polite table rituals with scrupulous care. First Ian offered the platter of bacon with the biscuit centerpiece to Elizabeth. “Thank you,” she said, choosing two black strips of bacon.
Ian took three strips of bacon and studied the flat brown object reposing on the center of the platter. “I recognize the bacon,” he said with grave courtesy, “but what is that?” he asked, eyeing the brown object. “It looks quite exotic.”
“It’s a biscuit,” Elizabeth informed him.
“Really?” he said, straight-faced. “Without any shape?”
“I call it a—a pan biscuit,” Elizabeth fabricated hastily.
“Yes, I can see why you might,” he agreed. “It rather resembles the shape of a pan.”
Separately they surveyed their individual plates, trying to decide which item was most likely to be edible. They arrived at the same conclusion at the same moment; both of them picked up a strip of bacon and bit into it. Noisy crunching and cracking sounds ensued—like those of a large tree breaking in half and falling. Carefully avoiding each other’s eyes, they continued crunching away until they’d both eaten all the bacon on their plates. That finished, Elizabeth summoned her courage and took a dainty bite of egg.
The egg tasted like tough, salted wrapping paper, but Elizabeth chewed manfully on it, her stomach churning with humiliation and a lump of tears starting to swell in her throat. She expected some scathing comment at any moment from her companion, and the more politely he continued eating, the more she wished he’d revert to his usual unpleasant self so that she’d at least have the defense of anger. Lately everything that happened to her was humiliating, and her pride and confidence were in tatters. Leaving the egg unfinished, she put down her fork and tried the biscuit. After several seconds of attempting to break a piece off with her fingers she picked up her knife and sawed away at it. A brown piece finally broke loose; she lifted it to her mouth and bit—but it was so tough her teeth only made grooves in the surface. Across the table she felt Ian’s eyes on her, and the urge to weep doubled. “Would you like some coffee?” she asked in a suffocated little voice.
“Yes, thank you.”
Relieved to have a moment to compose herself, Elizabeth arose and went to the stove, but her eyes blurred with tears as she blindly filled a mug with freshly brewed coffee. She brought it over to him, then sat down again.
Sliding a glance at the defeated girl sitting with her head bent and her hands folded in her lap, Ian felt a compulsive urge to either laugh or comfort her, but since chewing was requiring such an effort, he couldn’t do either. Swallowing the last piece of egg, he finally managed to say, “That was . . . er . . . quite filling.”
Thinking perhaps he hadn’t found it so bad as she had, Elizabeth hesitantly raised her eyes to his. “I haven’t had a great deal of experience with cooking,” she admitted in a small voice. She watched him take a mouthful of coffee, saw his eyes widen with shock—and he began to chew the coffee.
Elizabeth lurched to her feet, squared her shoulders, and said hoarsely, “I always take a stroll after breakfast. Excuse me.”
Still chewing, Ian watched her flee from the house, then he gratefully got rid of the mouthful of coffee grounds. Elizabeth’s breakfast had cured Ian’s hunger, in fact, the idea of ever eating again made his stomach chum as he started for the bam to check on Mayhem’s injury.
He was partway there when he saw her off to the left, sitting on the hillside amid the bluebells, her arms wrapped around her knees, her forehead resting atop them. Even with her hair shining like newly minted gold in the sun, she looked like a picture of heartbreaking dejection. He started to turn away and leave her to moody privacy; then, with a sigh of irritation, he changed his mind and started down the hill toward her.
A few yards away he realized her shoulders were shaking with sobs, and he frowned in surprise. Obviously there was no point in pretending the meal had been good, so he injected a note of amusement into his voice and said, “I applaud your ingenuity—shooting me yesterday would have been too quick.”
Elizabeth started violently at the sound of his voice. Snapping her head up, she stared off to the left, keeping her tear-streaked face averted from him. “Did you want something?”
“Dessert?” Ian suggested wryly, leaning slightly forward, trying to see her face. He thought he saw a morose smile touch her lips, and he added, “I thought we could whip up a batch of cream and put it on the biscuit. Afterward we can take whatever is left, mix it with the leftover eggs, and use it to patch the roof.”
A teary chuckle escaped her, and she drew a shaky breath but still refused to look at him as she said, “I’m surprised you’re being so pleasant about it.”
“There’s no sense crying over burnt bacon.”
“I wasn’t crying over that,” she said, feeling sheepish and bewildered. A snowy handkerchief appeared before her face, and Elizabeth accepted it, dabbing at her wet cheeks.
“Then why were you crying?”
She gazed straight ahead, her eyes focused on the surrounding hills splashed with bluebells and hawthorn, the handkerchief clenched in her hand. “I was crying for my own ineptitude, and for my inability to control my life,” she admitted.
The word “ineptitude” startled Ian, and it occurred to him that for the shallow little flirt he supposed her to be she had an exceptionally fine vocabulary. She glanced up at him then, and Ian found himself gazing into a pair of green eyes the amazing color of wet leaves. With tears still sparkling on her long russet lashes, her long hair tied back in a girlish bow, and her full breasts thrusting against the bodice of her gown, she was a picture of alluring innocence and intoxicating sensuality. Ian jerked his gaze from her breasts and said abruptly, “I’m going to cut some wood so we’ll have it for a fire tonight. Afterward I’m going to do some fishing for our supper. I trust you’ll find a way to amuse yourself in the meantime.”
Startled by his sudden brusqueness, Elizabeth nodded and stood up, dimly aware that he did not offer his hand to assist her. He’d already started to walk away when he turned and added, “Don’t try to clean the house. Jake will be back before evening with women to do that.”

 

McNaught E-Mondays: A Kingdom of Dreams

A Kingdom of Dreams is one of my favorite Judith McNaught books so I’m really excited to offer you an excerpt of this book. It’s classic historical romance with all the good and sometimes not so great that comes with its canonical status. But it remains, for me, a favorite. Enjoy!

CHAPTER 1

A Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught“A toast to the duke of Claymore and his bride!”
Under normal circumstances, this call for a wedding toast would have caused the lavishly dressed ladies and gentlemen assembled in the great hall at Merrick castle to smile and cheer. Goblets of wine would have been raised and more toasts offered in celebration of a grand and noble wedding such as the one which was about to take place here in the south of Scotland.
But not today. Not at this wedding.
At this wedding, no one cheered and no one raised a goblet. At this wedding, everyone was watching everyone else, and everyone was tense. The bride’s family was tense. The groom’s family was tense. The guests and the servants and the hounds in the hall were tense. Even the first earl of Merrick, whose portrait hung above the fireplace, looked tense.
“A toast to the duke of Claymore and his bride,” the groom’s brother pronounced again, his voice like a thunderclap in the unnatural, tomblike silence of the crowded hall. “May they enjoy a long and fruitful life together.”
Normally, that ancient toast brings about a predictable reaction: The groom always smiles proudly because he’s convinced he’s accomplished something quite wonderful. The bride smiles because she’s been able to convince him of it. The guests smile because, amongst the nobility, a marriage connotes the linking of two important families and two large fortunes—which in itself is cause for great celebration and abnormal gaiety.
But not today. Not on this fourteenth day of October, 1497.
Having made the toast, the groom’s brother raised his goblet and smiled grimly at the groom. The groom’s friends raised their goblets and smiled fixedly at the bride’s family. The bride’s family raised their goblets and smiled frigidly at each other. The groom, who alone seemed to be immune to the hostility in the hall, raised his goblet and smiled calmly at his bride, but the smile did not reach his eyes.
The bride did not bother to smile at anyone. She looked furious and mutinous.
In truth, Jennifer was so frantic she scarcely knew anyone was there. At the moment, every fiber of her being was concentrating on a last-minute, desperate appeal to God, Who out of lack of attention or lack of interest, had let her come to this sorry pass. “Lord,” she cried silently, swallowing the lump of terror swelling in her throat, “if You’re going to do something to stop this marriage, You’re going to have to do it quickly, or in five minutes ’twill be too late! Surely, I deserve something better than this forced marriage to a man who stole my virginity! I didn’t just hand it over to him, You know!”
Realizing the folly of reprimanding the Almighty, she hastily switched to pleading: “Haven’t I always tried to serve You well?” she whispered silently. “Haven’t I always obeyed You?”
“NOT ALWAYS, JENNIFER,” God’s voice thundered in her mind.
“Nearly always,” Jennifer amended frantically. “I attended mass every day, except when I was ill, which was seldom, and I said my prayers every morning and every evening. Nearly every evening,” she amended hastily before her conscience could contradict her again, “except when I fell asleep before I was finished. And I tried, I truly tried to be all that the good sisters at the abbey wanted me to be. You know now hard I’ve tried! Lord,” she finished desperately, “if you’ll just help me escape from this, I’ll never be willful or impulsive again.”
“THAT I DO NOT BELIEVE, JENNIFER,” God boomed dubiously.
“Nay, I swear it,” she earnestly replied, trying to strike a bargain. “I’ll do anything You want, I’ll go straight back to the abbey and devote my life to prayer and—”
“The marriage contracts have been duly signed. Bring in the priest,” Lord Balfour commanded, and Jennifer’s breath came in wild, panicked gasps, all thoughts of potential sacrifices fleeing from her mind.
“God,” she silently pleaded, “why are You doing this to me? You aren’t going to let this happen to me, are You?”
Silence fell over the great hall as the doors were flung open.
“YES, JENNIFER, I AM.”
The crowd parted automatically to admit the priest, and Jennifer felt as if her life were ending. Her groom stepped into position beside her, and Jennifer jerked an inch away, her stomach churning with resentment and humiliation at having to endure his nearness. If only she had known how one heedless act could end in disaster and disgrace. If only she hadn’t been so impulsive and reckless!
Closing her eyes, Jennifer shut out the hostile faces of the English and the murderous faces of her Scots kinsmen, and in her heart she faced the wrenching truth: Impulsiveness and recklessness, her two greatest faults, had brought her to this dire end—the same two character flaws that had led her to commit all of her most disastrous follies. Those two flaws, combined with a desperate yearning to make her father love her, as he loved his stepsons, were responsible for the debacle she’d made of her life:
When she was fifteen, those were the things that had led her to try to avenge herself against her sly, spiteful stepbrother in what had seemed a right and honorable way—which was to secretly don Merrick armor and then ride against him, fairly, in the lists. That magnificent folly had gained her a sound thrashing from her father right there on the field of honor—and only a tiny bit of satisfaction from having knocked her wicked stepbrother clean off his horse!
The year before, those same traits had caused her to behave in such a way that old Lord Balder withdrew his request for her hand, and in doing so destroyed her father’s cherished dream of joining the two families. And those things, in turn, were what got her banished to the abbey at Belkirk, where, seven weeks ago, she’d become easy prey for the Black Wolf’s marauding army.
And now, because of all that, she was forced to wed her enemy; a brutal English warrior whose armies had oppressed her country, a man who had captured her, held her prisoner, taken her virginity, and destroyed her reputation.
But it was too late for prayers and promises now. Her fate had been sealed from the moment, seven weeks ago, when she’d been dumped at the feet of the arrogant beast beside her, trussed up like a feastday partridge.
Jennifer swallowed. No, before that—she’d veered down this path to disaster earlier that same day when she’d refused to heed the warnings that the Black Wolf’s armies were nearby.
But why should she have believed it, Jennifer cried in her own defense. “The Wolf is marching on us!” had been a terrified call of doom issued almost weekly throughout the last five years. But on that day, seven weeks ago, it had been woefully true.
The crowd in the hall stirred restlessly, looking about for a sign of the priest, but Jennifer was lost in her memories of that day.
At the time, it had seemed an unusually pretty day, the sky a cheerful blue, the air balmy. The sun had been shining down upon the abbey, bathing its Gothic spires and graceful arches in bright golden light, beaming benignly upon the sleepy little village of Belkirk, which boasted the abbey, two shops, thirty-four cottages, and a communal stone well in the center of it, where villagers gathered on Sunday afternoons, as they were doing then. On a distant hill, a shepherd looked after his flock, while in a clearing not far from the well, Jennifer had been playing hoodman-blind with the orphans whom the abbess had entrusted to her care.
And in that halcyon setting of laughter and relaxation, this travesty had begun. As if she could somehow change events by reliving them in her mind, Jennifer closed her eyes, and suddenly she was there again in the little clearing with the children, her head completely covered with the hoodman’s hood . . .
“Where are you, Tom MacGivern?” she called out, groping about with outstretched arms, pretending she couldn’t locate the giggling nine-year-old boy, who her ears told her was only a foot away on her right. Grinning beneath the concealing hood, she assumed the pose of a classic “monster” by holding her arms high in front of her, her fingers spread like claws, and began to stomp about, calling in a deep, ominous voice, “You can’t escape me, Tom MacGivern.”
“Ha!” he shouted from her right. “You’ll no’ find me, hoodman!”
“Yes, I will!” Jenny threatened, then deliberately turned to her left, which caused gales of laughter to erupt from the children who were hiding behind trees and crouching beside bushes.
“I’ve got you!” Jenny shouted triumphantly a few minutes later as she swooped down upon a fleeing, giggling child, catching a small wrist in her hand. Breathless and laughing, Jenny yanked off her hood to see whom she’d captured, mindless of the red gold hair tumbling down over her shoulders and arms.
“You got Mary!” the children crowed delightedly. “Mary’s the hoodman now!”
The little five-year-old girl looked up at Jenny, her hazel eyes wide and apprehensive, her thin body shivering with fear. “Please,” she whispered, clinging to Jenny’s leg, “I—I not want to wear th’ hood—’Twill be dark inside it. Do I got to wear it?”
Smiling reassuringly, Jenny tenderly smoothed Mary’s hair off her thin face. “Not if you don’t want.”
“I’m afeert of the dark,” Mary confided unnecessarily, her narrow shoulders drooping with shame.
Sweeping her up into her arms, Jenny hugged her tightly. “Everybody is afraid of something,” she said and teasingly added, “Why, I’m afraid of—of frogs!”
The dishonest admission made the little girl giggle. “Frogs!” she repeated, “I likes frogs! They don’t sceer me ’tall.”
“There, you see—” Jenny said as she lowered her to the ground. “You’re very brave. Braver than I!”
“Lady Jenny is afeart of silly ol’ frogs,” Mary told the group of children as they ran forward.
“No she isn—” young Tom began, quick to rise to the defense of the beautiful Lady Jenny who, despite her lofty rank, was always up to anything—including hitching up her skirts and wading in the pond to help him catch a fat bullfrog—or climbing up a tree, quick as a cat, to rescue little Will who was afraid to come down.
Tom silenced at Jenny’s pleading look and argued no more about her alleged fear of frogs. “I’ll wear the hood,” he volunteered, gazing adoringly at the seventeen-year-old girl who wore the somber gown of a novice nun, but who was not one, and who, moreover, certainly didn’t act like one. Why, last Sunday during the priest’s long sermon, Lady Jenny’s head had nodded forward, and only Tom’s loud, false coughing in the bench behind her had awakened her in time for her to escape detection by the sharp-eyed abbess.
“ ’Tis Tom’s turn to wear the hood,” Jenny agreed promptly, handing Tom the hood. Smiling, she watched the children scamper off to their favorite hiding places, then she picked up the wimple and short woolen veil she’d taken off in order to be the hoodman. Intending to go over to the communal well where the villagers were eagerly questioning some clansmen passing through Belkirk on their way to their homes from the war against the English in Cornwall, she lifted the wimple, intending to put it on.
“Lady Jennifer!” One of the village men called suddenly, “Come quick—there’s news of the laird.” The veil and wimple forgotten in her hand, Jenny broke into a run, and the children, sensing the excitement, stopped their game and raced along at her heels.
“What news?” Jenny asked breathlessly, her gaze searching the stolid faces of the groups of clansmen. One of them stepped forward, respectfully removing his helm and cradling it in the crook of his arm. “Be you the daughter of the laird of Merrick?”
At the mention of the name Merrick, two of the men at the well suddenly stopped in the act of pulling up a bucket of water and exchanged startled, malevolent glances before they quickly ducked their heads again, keeping their faces in shadow. “Yes,” Jenny said eagerly. “You have news of my father?”
“Aye, m’lady. He’s comin’ this way, not far behind us, wit a big band o’ men.”
“Thank God,” Jenny breathed. “How goes the battle at Cornwall?” she asked after a moment, ready now to forget her personal concerns and devote her worry to the battle the Scots were waging at Cornwall in support of King James and Edward V’s claim to the English throne.
His face answered Jenny’s question even before he said, “ ’Twas all but over when we left. In Cork and Taunton it looked like we might win, and the same was true in Cornwall, until the devil hisself came to take command ’o Henry’s army.”
“The devil?” Jenny repeated blankly.
Hatred contorted the man’s face and he spat on the ground. “Aye, the devil—the Black Wolf hisself, may he roast in hell from whence he was spawned.”
Two of the peasant women crossed themselves as if to ward off evil at the mention of the Black Wolf, Scotland’s most hated, and most feared, enemy, but the man’s next words made them gape in fear: “The Wolf is comin’ back to Scotland. Henry’s sendin’ him here with a fresh army to crush us for supportin’ King Edward. Twill be murder and bloodshed like the last time he came, only worst, you mark me. The clans are making haste to come home and get ready for the battles. I’m thinkin’ the Wolf will attack Merrick first, before any o’ the rest of us, for ’twas your clan that took the most English lives at Cornwall.”
So saying, he nodded politely, put on his helmet, then he swung up onto his horse.
The scraggly groups at the well departed soon afterward, heading down the road that led across the moors and wound upward into the hills.
Two of the men, however, did not continue beyond the bend in the road. Once out of sight of the villagers, they veered off to the right, sending their horses at a furtive gallop into the forest.
Had Jenny been watching, she might have caught a brief glimpse of them doubling back through the woods that ran beside the road right behind her. But at the time, she was occupied with the terrified pandemonium that had broken out among the citizens of Belkirk, which happened to lie directly in the path between England and Merrick keep.
“The Wolf is coming!” one of the women cried, clutching her babe protectively to her breast. “God have pity on us.”
“ ’Tis Merrick he’ll strike at,” a man shouted, his voice rising in fear. “ ’Tis the laird of Merrick he’ll want in his jaws, but ’tis Belkirk he’ll devour on the way.” Suddenly the air was filled with gruesome predictions of fire and death and slaughter, and the children crowded around Jenny, clinging to her in mute horror. To the Scots, be they wealthy noble or lowly villager, the Black Wolf was more evil than the devil himself, and more dangerous, for the devil was a spirit, while the Wolf was flesh and blood—the living Lord of Evil—a monstrous being who threatened their existence, right here on earth. He was the malevolent specter that the Scots used to terrify their offspring into behaving. “The Wolf will get you,” was the warning issued to keep children from straying into the woods or leaving their beds at night, or from disobeying their elders.
Impatient with such hysteria over what was, to her, more myth than man, Jenny raised her voice in order to be heard over the din. “Tis more likely,” she called, putting her arms around the terrified children who’d crowded against her at the first mention of the Wolf’s name, “that he’ll go back to his heathen king so that he can lick the wounds we gave him at Cornwall while he tells great lies to exaggerate his victory. And if he does not do that, he’ll choose a weaker keep than Merrick for his attack—one he’s a chance of breeching.
Her words and her tone of amused disdain brought startled gazes flying to her face, but it wasn’t merely false bravado that had made Jenny speak so: She was a Merrick, and a Merrick never admitted to fear of any man. She had heard that hundreds of times when her father spoke to her stepbrothers, and she had adopted his creed for her own. Furthermore, the villagers were frightening the children, which she refused to let continue.
Mary tugged at Jenny’s skirts to get her attention, and in a shrill little voice, she asked, “Isn’t you afeert of the Black Wolf, Lady Jenny?”
“Of course not!” Jenny said with a bright, reassuring smile.
“They say,” young Tom interjected in an awed voice, “the Wolf is as tall as a tree!”
“A tree!” Jenny chuckled, trying to make a huge joke of the Wolf and all the lore surrounding him. “If he is, ’twould be a sight worth seeing when he tries to mount his horse! Why, ’twould take four squires to hoist him up there!”
The absurdity of that image made some of the children giggle, exactly as Jenny had hoped.
“I heert,” said young Will with an eloquent shudder, “he tears down walls with his bare hands and drinks blood!”
“Yuk!” said Jenny with twinkling eyes. “Then ’tis only indigestion which makes him so mean. If he comes to Belkirk, we’ll offer him some good Scottish ale instead.”
“My pa said,” put in another child, “he rides with a giant beside him, a Go-liath called Arik who carries a war axe and chops up children . . .”
“I heert—” another child interrupted ominously.
Jenny cut in lightly, “Let me tell you what I have heard.” With a bright smile, she began to shepherd them toward the abbey, which was out of sight just beyond a bend down the road. ‘7 heard,” she improvised gaily, “that he’s so very old that he has to squint to see, just like this—”
She screwed up her face in a comical exaggeration of a befuddled, near-blind person peering around blankly, and the children giggled.
As they walked along, Jenny kept up the same lighthearted teasing comments, and the children fell in with the game, adding their own suggestions to make the Wolf seem absurd.
But despite the laughter and seeming gaiety of the moment, the sky had suddenly darkened as a bank of heavy clouds rolled in, and the air was turning bitingly cold, whipping Jenny’s cloak about her, as if nature herself brooded at the mention of such evil.
Jenny was about to make another joke at the Wolf’s expense, but she broke off abruptly as a group of mounted clansmen rounded the bend from the abbey, coming toward her down the road. A beautiful girl, clad as Jenny was in the somber gray gown, white wimple, and short gray veil of a novice nun, was mounted in front of the leader, sitting demurely sideways in his saddle, her timid smile confirming what Jenny already knew.
With a silent cry of joy, Jenny started to dash forward, then checked the unladylike impulse and made herself stay where she was. Her eyes clung to her father, then drifted briefly over her clansmen, who were staring past her with the same grim disapproval they’d shown her for years—ever since her stepbrother had successfully circulated his horrible tale.
Sending the children ahead with strict orders to go directly to the abbey, Jenny waited in the middle of the road for what seemed like an eternity until, at last, the group halted in front of her.
Her father, who’d obviously stopped at the abbey where Brenna, Jenny’s stepsister, was also staying, swung down from his horse, then he turned to lift Brenna down. Jenny chafed at the delay, but his scrupulous attention to courtesy and dignity was so typical of the great man that a wry smile touched her lips.
Finally, he turned fully toward her, opening his arms wide. Jenny hurtled into his embrace, hugging him fiercely, babbling in her excitement: “Father, I’ve missed you so! ’Tis nearly two years since I’ve seen you! Are you well? You look well. You’ve scarce changed in all this time!”
Gently disentangling her arms from about his neck, Lord Merrick set his daughter slightly away from him while his gaze drifted over her tousled hair, rosy cheeks, and badly rumpled gown. Jenny squirmed inwardly beneath his prolonged scrutiny, praying that he approved of what he saw and that, since he’d obviously stopped at the abbey already, the abbess’s report had been pleasing to him.
Two years ago, her behavior had gotten her sent to the abbey; a year ago, Brenna had been sent down here for safety’s sake while the laird was at war. Under the abbess’s firm guidance, Jenny had come to appreciate her strengths, and to try to overcome her faults. But as her father inspected her from head to toe, she couldn’t help wondering if he saw the young lady she was now or the unruly girl she’d been two years ago. His blue eyes finally returned to her face and there was a smile in them. “Ye’ve become a woman, Jennifer.”
Jenny’s heart soared; coming from her taciturn father, such a comment constituted high praise. “I’ve changed in other ways too, Father,” she promised, her eyes shining. “I’ve changed a great deal.”
“Not that much, my girl.” Raising his shaggy white brows, he looked pointedly at the short veil and wimple hanging forgotten from her fingertips.
“Oh!” Jenny said, laughing and anxious to explain. “I was playing hoodman-blind . . . er . . . with the children, and it wouldn’t fit beneath the hood. Have you seen the abbess? What did Mother Ambrose tell you?”
Laughter sparked in his somber eyes. “She told me,” he replied dryly, “that ye’ve a habit of sitting on yon hill and gazing off into the air, dreaming, which sounds familiar, lassie. And she told me ye’ve a tendency to nod off in the midst of mass, should the priest sermonize longer than you think seemly, which also sounds familiar.”
Jenny’s heart sank at this seeming betrayal from the abbess whom she so admired. In a sense, Mother Ambrose was laird of her own grand demesne, controlling revenues from the farmlands and livestock that belonged to the splendid abbey, presiding at table whenever there were visitors, and dealing with all other matters that involved the laymen who worked on the abbey grounds as well as the nuns who lived cloistered within its soaring walls.
Brenna was terrified of the stem woman, but Jenny loved her, and so the abbess’s apparent betrayal cut deeply.
Her father’s next words banished her disappointment. “Mother Ambrose also told me,” he admitted with gruff pride, “that you’ve a head on your shoulders befitting an abbess herself. She said you’re a Merrick through and through, with courage enough to be laird of yer own clan. But you’ll no’ be that,” he warned, dashing Jenny’s fondest dream.
With an effort, Jenny kept the smile pinned to her face, refusing to feel the hurt of being deprived of that right—a right that had been promised to her until her father married Brenna’s widowed mother and acquired three stepsons in the bargain.
Alexander, the eldest of the three brothers, would assume the position that had been promised to her. That, in itself, wouldn’t have been nearly so hard to bear if Alexander had been nice, or even fair-minded, but he was a treacherous, scheming liar, and Jenny knew it, even if her father and her clan did not. Within a year after coming to live at Merrick keep, he’d begun carrying tales about her, tales so slanderous and ghastly, but so cleverly contrived, that, over a period of years, he’d turned her whole clan against her. That loss of her clan’s affection still hurt unbearably. Even now, when they were looking through her as if she didn’t exist for them, Jenny had to stop herself from pleading with them to forgive her for things she had not done.
William, the middle brother, was like Brenna— sweet and as timid as can be—while Malcolm, the youngest, was as evil and as sneaky as Alexander. “The abbess also said,” her father continued, “that you’re kind and gentle, but you’ve spirit, too . . .”
“She said all that?” Jenny asked, dragging her dismal thoughts from her stepbrothers. “Truly?”
“Aye.” Jenny would normally have rejoiced in that answer, but she was watching her father’s face, and it was becoming more grim and tense than she had ever seen it. Even his voice was strained as he said, “ ’Tis well you’ve given up your heathenish ways and that you’re all the things you’ve become, Jennifer.”
He paused as if unable or unwilling to continue, and Jenny prodded gently, “Why is that, Father?”
“Because,” he said, drawing a long, harsh breath, “the future of the clan will depend on your answer to my next question.”
His words trumpeted in her mind like blasts from a clarion, leaving Jenny dazed with excitement and joy: “The future of the clan depends on you . . .” She was so happy, she could scarcely trust her ears. It was as if she were up on the hill overlooking the abbey, dreaming her favorite daydream—the one where her father always came to her and said, “Jennifer, the future of the clan depends on you. Not your stepbrothers. You.” It was the chance she’d been dreaming of to prove her mettle to her clansmen and to win back their affection. In that daydream, she was always called upon to perform some incredible feat of daring, some brave and dangerous deed, like scaling the wall of the Black Wolf’s castle and capturing him single-handedly. But no matter how daunting the task, she never questioned it, nor hesitated a second to accept the challenge.
She searched her father’s face. “What would you have me do?” she asked eagerly. “Tell me, and I will! I’ll do any—”
“Will you marry Edric MacPherson?”
“Whaaat?” gasped the horrified heroine of Jenny’s daydream. Edric MacPherson was older than her father; a wizened, frightening man who’d looked at her in a way that made her skin crawl ever since she’d begun to change from girl to maiden.
“Will you, or will you no’?”
Jenny’s delicate auburn brows snapped together. “Why?” asked the heroine who never questioned.
A strange, haunted look darkened his face. “We took a beating at Cornwall, lass—we lost half our men. Alexander was killed in battle. He died like a Merrick,” he added with grim pride, “fighting to the end.”
“I’m glad for your sake, Papa,” she said, unable to feel more than a brief pang of sorrow for the stepbrother who’d made her life into a hell. Now, as she often had in the past, she wished there were something she could do to make him proud of her. “I know you loved him as if he were your own son.”
Accepting her sympathy with a brief nod, he returned to the discussion at hand: “There were many amongst the clans who were opposed to going to Cornwall to fight for King James’s cause, but the clans followed me anyway. Tis no secret to the English that ’twas my influence which brought the clans to Cornwall, and now the English king wants vengeance. He’s sendin’ the Wolf to Scotland to attack Merrick keep.” Ragged pain edged his deep voice as he admitted, “We’ll no’ be able to withstand a siege now, not unless the MacPherson clan comes to support us in our fight. The MacPherson has enough influence with a dozen other clans to force them to join us as well.”
Jenny’s mind was reeling. Alexander was dead, and the Wolf really was coming to attack her home . . .
Her father’s harsh voice snapped her out of her daze. “Jennifer! Do you ken what I’ve been saying? MacPherson has promised to join in our fight, but only if you’ll have him for husband.”
Through her mother, Jenny was a countess and heiress to a rich estate which marched with MacPherson’s. “He wants my lands?” she said almost hopefully, remembering the awful way Edric MacPherson’s eyes had wandered down her body when he’d stopped at the abbey a year ago to pay a “social call” upon her.
“Aye.”
“Couldn’t we just give them to him in return for his support?” she volunteered desperately, ready— willing—to sacrifice a splendid demesne without hesitation, for the good of her people.
“He’d not agree to that!” her father said angrily. “There’s honor in fighting for kin, but he could no’ send his people into a fight that’s no’ their own, and then take your lands in payment to him.”
“But, surely, if he wants my lands badly enough, there’s some way—”
“He wants you. He sent word to me in Cornwall.” His gaze drifted over Jenny’s face, registering the startling changes that had altered her face from its thin, freckled, girlish plainness into a face of almost exotic beauty. “Ye’ve your mother’s look about ye now, lass, and it’s whetted the appetites of an old man. I’d no’ ask this of you if there was any other way.” Gruffly, he reminded her, “You used to plead wi’ me to name you laird. Ye said there was naught you wouldna’ do fer yer clan . . .”
Jenny’s stomach twisted into sick knots at the thought of committing her body, her entire life, into the hands of a man she instinctively recoiled from, but she lifted her head and bravely met her father’s gaze. “Aye, father,” she said quietly. “Shall I come with you now?”
The look of pride and relief on his face almost made the sacrifice worthwhile. He shook his head. “ ’Tis best you stay here with Brenna. We’ve no horses to spare and we’re anxious to reach Merrick and begin preparations for battle. I’ll send word to the MacPherson that the marriage is agreed upon, and then send someone here to fetch you to him.”
When he turned to remount his horse, Jenny gave into the temptation she’d been fighting all along: Instead of standing aside, she moved into the rows of mounted clansmen who had once been her friends and playmates. Hoping that some of them had perhaps heard her agree to marry the MacPherson and that this might neutralize their contempt of her, she paused beside the horse of a ruddy, red-headed man. “Good day to you, Renald Garvin,” she said, smiling hesitantly into his hooded gaze. “How fares your lady wife?”
His jaw hardened, his cold eyes flickering over her. “Well enough, I imagine,” he snapped.
Jenny swallowed at the unmistakable rejection from the man who had once taught her to fish and laughed with her when she fell into the stream.
She turned around and looked beseechingly at the man in the column beside Renald. “And you, Michael MacCleod? Has your leg been causing you any pain?”
Cold blue eyes met hers, then looked straight ahead.
She went to the rider behind him whose face was filled with hatred and she held out her hand beseechingly, her voice choked with pleading. “Garrick Carmichael, it has been four years since your Becky drowned. I swear to you now, as I swore to you then, I did not shove her into the river. We were not quarreling—’twas a lie invented by Alexander to—”
His face as hard as granite, Garrick Carmichael spurred his horse forward, and without ever looking at her, the men began passing her by.
Only old Josh, the clan’s armorer, pulled his ancient horse to a halt, letting the others go on ahead. Leaning down, he laid his callused palm atop her bare head. “I know you speak truly, lassie,” he said, and his unceasing loyalty brought the sting of tears to her eyes as she gazed up into his soft brown ones. “Ye have a temper, there’s no denyin’ it, but even when ye were but a wee thing, ye kept it bridled. Garrick Carmichael and the others might o’ been fooled by Alexander’s angelic looks, but not ol’ Josh. You’ll no’ see me grievin’ o’er the loss o’ him! The clan’ll be better by far wit’ young William leadin’ it. Carmichael and the others—” he added reassuringly, “they’ll come about in their thinkin’ o’ you, once they ken yer marrying the MacPherson for their sake as well as your sire’s.”
“Where are my stepbrothers?” Jenny asked hoarsely, changing the subject lest she burst into tears.
“They’re comin’ home by a different route. We couldn’t be sure the Wolf wouldn’t try to attack us while we marched, so we split up after leavin’ Cornwall.” With another pat on her head, he spurred his horse forward.
As if in a daze, Jenny stood stock-still in the middle of the road, watching her clan ride off and disappear around the bend.
“It grows dark,” Brenna said beside her, her gentle voice filled with sympathy. “We should go back to the abbey now.”
The abbey. Three short hours ago, Jenny had walked away from the abbey feeling cheery and alive. Now she felt—dead. “Go ahead without me. I—I can’t go back there. Not yet. I think I’ll walk up the hill and sit for a while.”
“The abbess will be annoyed if we aren’t back before dusk, and it’s near that now,” Brenna said apprehensively. It had always been thus between the two girls, with Jenny breaking a rule and Brenna terrified of bending one. Brenna was gentle, biddable, and beautiful, with blond hair, hazel eyes, and a sweet disposition that made her, in Jenny’s eyes, the embodiment of womanhood at its best. She was also as meek and timid as Jenny was impulsive and courageous. Without Jenny, she’d not have had a single adventure—nor ever gotten a scolding. Without Brenna to worry about and protect, Jenny would have had many more adventures—and many more scoldings. As a result, the two girls were entirely devoted to each other, and tried to protect one another as much as possible from the inevitable results of each other’s shortcomings.
Brenna hesitated and then volunteered with only a tiny tremor in her voice, “I’ll stay with you. If you remain alone, you’ll forget about time and likely be pounced upon by a—a bear in the darkness.”
At the moment, the prospect of being killed by a bear seemed rather inviting to Jenny, whose entire life stretched before her, shrouded in gloom and foreboding. Despite the fact that she truly wanted, needed, to stay outdoors and try to reassemble her thoughts, Jenny shook her head, knowing that if they stayed, Brenna would be drowning in fear at the thought of facing the abbess. “No, we’ll go back.”
Ignoring Jenny’s words, Brenna clasped Jenny’s hand and turned to the left, toward the slope of the hill that overlooked the abbey, and for the first time it was Brenna who led and Jenny who followed.
In the woods beside the road, two shadows moved stealthily, staying parallel with the girls’ path up the hill.
By the time they were partway up the steep incline, Jenny had already grown impatient with her own self-pity, and she made a Herculean effort to shore up her flagging spirits. “When you think on it,” she offered slowly, directing a glance at Brenna, “ ’tis actually a grand and noble thing I’ve been given the opportunity to do—marrying the MacPherson for the sake of my people.”
“You’re just like Joan of Arc,” Brenna agreed eagerly, “leading her people to victory!”
“Except that I’m marrying Edric MacPherson.”
“And,” Brenna finished encouragingly, “suffering a worse fate than she did!”
Laughter widened Jenny’s eyes at this depressing remark, which her well-meaning sister delivered with such enthusiasm.
Encouraged by the return of Jenny’s ability to laugh, Brenna cast about for something else with which to divert and cheer her. As they neared the crest of the hill, which was blocked by thick woods, she said suddenly, “What did Father mean about your having your mother’s ‘look about you’?”
“I don’t know,” Jenny began, diverted by a sudden, uneasy feeling that they were being watched in the deepening dusk. Turning and walking backward, she looked down toward the well and saw the villagers had all returned to the warmth of their hearths. Drawing her cloak about her, she shivered in the biting wind, and without much interest, she added, “Mother Abbess said my looks are a trifle brazen and that I must guard against the effect I will have on males when I leave the abbey.”
“What does all that mean?”
Jenny shrugged without concern. “I don’t know.” Turning and walking forward again, Jenny remembered the wimple and veil in her fingertips and began to put the wimple back on. “What do I look like to you?” she asked, shooting a puzzled glance at Brenna. “I haven’t seen my face in two years, except when I caught a reflection of it in the water. Have I changed much?”
“Oh yes,” Brenna laughed. “Even Alexander wouldn’t be able to call you scrawny and plain now, or say that your hair is the color of carrots.”
“Brenna!” Jenny interrupted, thunderstruck by her own callousness. “Are you much grieved by Alexander’s death? He was your brother and—”
“Don’t talk of it any more,” Brenna pleaded shakily. “I cried when Father told me, but the tears were few and I feel guilty because I didn’t love him as I ought. Not then and not now. I couldn’t. He was so—mean-spirited. It’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, yet I can’t think of much good to say of him.” Her voice trailed off, and she pulled her cloak about her in the damp wind, gazing at Jenny in mute appeal to change the subject.
“Tell me how I look, then,” Jenny invited quickly, giving her sister a quick, hard hug.
They stopped walking, their way blocked by the dense woods that covered the rest of the slope. A slow, thoughtful smile spread across Brenna’s beautiful face as she studied her stepsister, her hazel eyes roving over Jenny’s expressive face, which was dominated by a pair of large eyes as clear as dark blue crystal beneath gracefully winged, auburn brows. “Well, you’re—you’re quite pretty!”
“Good, but do you see anything unusual about me?” Jenny asked, thinking of Mother Ambrose’s words as she put her wimple back on and pinned the short woolen veil in place atop it. “Anything at all which might make a male behave oddly?”
“No,” Brenna stated, for she saw Jenny through the eyes of a young innocent. “Nothing at all.” A man would have answered very differently, for although Jennifer Merrick wasn’t pretty in the conventional way, her looks were both stiking and provocative. She had a generous mouth that beckoned to be kissed, eyes like liquid sapphires that shocked and invited, hair like lush, red-gold satin, and a slender, voluptuous body that was made for a man’s hands.
“Your eyes are blue,” Brenna began helpfully, trying to describe her, and Jenny chuckled.
“They were blue two years ago,” she said. Brenna opened her mouth to answer, but the words became a scream that was stifled by a man’s hand that clapped over her mouth as he began dragging her backward into the dense cover of the woods.
Jenny ducked, instinctively expecting an attack from behind, but she was too late. Kicking and screaming against a gloved male hand, she was plucked from her feet and hauled into the woods. Brenna was tossed over the back of her captor’s horse like a sack of flour, her limp limbs attesting to the fact that she’d fainted, but Jenny was not so easily subdued. As her faceless adversary dumped her over the back of his horse, she threw herself to the side, rolling free, landing in the leaves and dirt, crawling on all fours beneath his horse, then scrambling to her feet. He caught her again, and Jenny raked her nails down his face, twisting in his hold. “God’s teeth!” he hissed, trying to hold onto her flailing limbs. Jenny let out a blood-chilling scream, at the same moment she kicked as hard as she could, landing a hefty blow on his shin with the sturdy, black boots which were deemed appropriate footware for novice nuns. A grunt of pain escaped the blond man as he let her go for a split second. She bolted forward and might even have gained a few yards if her booted foot hadn’t caught under a thick tree root and sent her sprawling onto her face, smacking the side of her head against a rock when she landed.
“Hand me the rope,” the Wolfs brother said, a grim smile on his face as he glanced at his companion. Pulling his limp captive’s cloak over her head, Stefan Westmoreland yanked it around her body, using it to pin her arms at her sides, then took the rope from his companion and tied it securely around Jenny’s middle. Finished, he picked up his human bundle and tossed it ignominiously over his horse, her derrière pointing skyward, then he swung up into the saddle behind her.

*********

A Kingdom of Dreams
9781501145483
$7.99
Abducted from her convent school, headstrong Scottish beauty Jennifer Merrick does not easily surrender to Royce Westmoreland, Duke of Claymore. Known as “The Wolf,” his very name strikes terror in the hearts of his enemies. But proud Jennifer will have nothing to do with the fierce English warrior who holds her captive, no matter what he threatens. Boldly she challenges his will—until the night he takes her in his powerful embrace, awakening in her an irresistible hunger. Suddenly Jennifer finds herself ensnared in a bewildering and seductive web of pride, passion, and overwhelming love. This beloved tale about two defiant hearts clashing in a furious battle of wills in the glorious age of chivalry “will stay in your heart forever and be a classic on your shelves” (RT Book Reviews, Top Pick).

You can purchase A Kingdom of Dreams at any of the following sites:

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